Does science advance one funeral at a time?

The physicist and Nobel laureate Max Planck offered the following observation about scientific progress:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

A pithy restatement of Planck’s observation is that science advances one funeral at a time. But is this really true? Azoulay and colleagues attempted to find out and presented their results in a 2019 study in the American Economic Review. These authors developed a clever approach by which they investigated the consequences of the premature death of a scientific superstar on journal publication rates within the subfield in which that scientist worked. The study was restricted to the life sciences where publications by the deceased scientist, that scientist’s collaborators and co-authors, and by other unrelated scientists could be easily quantified by subfield.

The authors created a reasonable set of criteria to identify ‘scientific superstars’ that could be consistently applied. For example, the criteria included a group of prestigious awards and grants and included elections to memberships in organizations such as the National Academy of Science. Using these criteria, a total of 452 eminent scientists were identified for study.

The authors concluded that the premature death of a scientific superstar opens up that scientist’s field to innovation. Following the death of the superstar scientist, there was a modest increase in the number of publications in the deceased scientist’s subfield. However, this overall increase represented two opposing trends. The first trend was that the number of publications in the subfield by the deceased scientist’s collaborators and co-authors went down dramatically. The second trend was that publications in the subfield by scientists who were not collaborators of the deceased scientist went up. The large increase in publications within the subfield by unrelated scientist more than made of the difference.

The authors further noted that the increase in subfield publications did not represent a reshuffling of the productivity of scientists who were already in the subfield. Rather, it represented and influx from scientists from other subfields moving into the subfield of the deceased scientist.

The authors suggest that the scientific superstar and collaborators form a clique that imposes a high cost of entry into the subfield in which the superstar dominates. This cost of entry might be reflected by allocation of grant funding by study sections dominated by the superstar’s collaborators (so-called financial gatekeeping), by greater ease of publication in scientific journals for clique members, and by invitations to speak at conferences. Scientists who are not members of this clique might decide that the cost of entry into that field is too high, until the death of the superstar scientist creates an opening.

The effects observed by Azoulay and colleagues were greatest in subfields that were losing scientific momentum, and that the contributions of the scientists newly attracted to the subfield rejuvenate the field by moving its ‘intellectual center of gravity’ away from its position prior to the death of the scientific superstar, particularly by introducing new ideas and methods from other fields.

While the study presents the pessimistic view that scientific superstars and their clique of collaborators retard scientific progress by restricting entry of new ideas and new scientists into their field, the authors point out that this dominance may have been important in the field’s inception. That is, for a new subfield to flourish initially, it may have been important for the founding scientist to control its intellectual evolution so that progress could be made through ‘shared assumptions and methodologies’. However, over time, this dominance chokes further progress.

Azoulay, P., Fons-Rosen, C., & Zivin, J. S. G. (2019). Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time. Am Econ Rev, 109(8), 2889-2920.

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