Was Einstein right to say that anyone who has not made a contribution to science by the age of 30 will never do so?
Cordelia Sealy, Editor, Materials Today
Available online 31 May 2006.
Last month I turned 35, but lucky for me I don't work for Ericsson. As widely reported, the telecoms firm has offered a voluntary redundancy package to 1000 of its Sweden-based staff aged 35-50. According to a statement, the company wants to make way for younger staff to redress an age imbalance in its workforce. Is Ericsson merely following Albert Einstein's advice, who reputedly stated that, “a person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so”?
And it's not just Einstein. Some recent research, which also gained wide coverage, has indicated that the majority of scientists make their most significant contributions before their early 40s [Kanazawa, J. Res. Personal. (2003) 37, 257]. Satoshi Kanazawa of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand took a random sample of 280 scientists and determined in which decade their peak productivity occurred. Nearly a quarter make their most significant contribution between the ages of 27 and 32, two-thirds do so by their mid-30s, and 80% by their early 40s. So even though Ericsson could potentially miss out on some significant innovations by setting the bar at 35, there may be a certain logic to the company's actions. Furthermore, another recent study by Francesco Daveri at Universitàdi Parma in Italy and Mika Maliranta at ETLA in Finland, which looked at a range of industries in Finland (including Nokia), found that an aging workforce is more of a burden for high-tech industries.
However, Kanazawa's analysis does not consider many women, whose productivity versus age relations for other fields such as jazz, art, and literature show a much more even spread and no marked peaks. Furthermore, argue critics, his analysis does not take account of other factors, such as life expectancy or demographics, which would influence the results. Other research along similar lines (for example, Keith Simonton at University of California, Davis) finds that most scientists tend to produce significant breakthroughs in each decade of their careers, usually with the final one in their 50s.
Whether or not one buys into the idea of ‘scientific burnout’, it is interesting that the scientific enterprise has developed into one that perpetuates this idea. Funding constraints push graduate students to finish their doctorates on time (in 3-4 years in the UK); post-docs typically run for three years or sometimes less; and many junior staff are employed on competitive tenure track schemes – all designed to bag that professorship by the time they are 40. And as it has often been said, such a system does not favor female participants (or late bloomers), by and large.
Is this the only way to do science? For the moment at least, it works rather too well to change. But with an aging population in the developed world and more women in the workforce, can it continue forever?