Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Productivity of Scientific Researchers

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article yesterday about the productivity of scientific researchers. The article cites studies about the period during one's lifetime when a researcher tends to be most productive. The Wall Street Journal cites research by Benjamin Jones of Northwestern, who argues that innovators tend to make their peak contributions around the age of 40, but then their contributions decline markedly in their early to mid-50s. Thus, the period of peak productivity is fairly limited. Naturally, these studies simply report the averages; there are many outliers, both young inventors who make substantial contributions at an early age as well as people who continue to innovate well beyond their early 50s.

The article points out that some companies are trying to find ways to extend the peak period of research productivity for their most talented people. They are trying to find ways to both help the young promising stars accelerate their learning curve and become more innovative at an earlie age, and they are trying to help older workers maintain their pace of innovation beyond their early to mid 50s. For instance, companies such as Sun and Texas Instruments are pairing up young engineers with experienced mentors; the partnerships benefit both the young and the old. The young come down the learning curve faster, and the old get access to new ideas and fresh perspectives.

As an academic, from time to time I think about this issue of research productivity over one's lifetime. I've seen plenty of scholars who make great contributions at a relatively early age and then become rather stale. They continue to work in a very narrow domain for decades, and they don't branch out to learn and discover new things. I think it takes a concerted effort on the party of any researcher, whether commercial or academic, to keep exploring new territory and exposing one's mind to completely new perspectives. It's easy to continue to mine the same territory upon which one has built their reputation; it's harder, but ultimately more beneficial, to take the risk to go beyond one's comfort zone and stake out new ground. In sum, I think all of us need to set some personal goals about the new bodies of knowledge and new skills that we would like to develop in the next 3-5 years; we need to keep setting these goals over time, so that we truly become lifelong learners. Hopefully, this will keep us innovative and productive for decades to come.