The ages of productivity

September 11th, 2010 by james

The Undercover Economist, Tim Harford, has a good article in today’s Financial Times about the stages in life when different professions are most productive. For example, I did a quick Google/calculation: the average median age of a Nobel Prize winner in physics or chemistry is 55; in the literature and peace prizes, it’s 64. (Sorry, not going to do the full test for statistical difference today). This distinction makes some sense, as the great discoveries in the two scientific subjects are marked by innovation (something that may become replaced by habit with age) and excellence in literature and statesmanship benefits from vast amounts of experience.

But, in keeping with our recent discussions about reform in academia, perhaps the bigger question is whether or not we should be actively targeting funding to match these periods of productivity? A quote from the FT article:

Two of my favourite writers, Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer, are worried about this – but from different perspectives. Gladwell, a Galenson fan, worries that our obsession with youthful genius will cause us to reject future late bloomers.

Lehrer has the opposite concern: that funding goes to scientists past their prime. He says the US’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been funding ever-older scientists. Thirty years ago, researchers in their early thirties used to receive 10 per cent of NIH grants; by 2006 the figure had fallen to 1 per cent.

From my experience in the UK, I think both groups have good, but different, funding opportunities. Established researchers are well-versed in applying for traditional call-based research grants, whereas young researchers are catered for by a number of fellowship schemes. I haven’t seen much evidence of disciplinary-based bias and to be honest, I think anti-discrimination laws would make it difficult to explicitly exclude a group of talented researchers just because they’ve reached an arbitrary age barrier. Think of Andrew Wiles, who found a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem but just over the Fields Medal’s age limit of 40.

Ultimately the top performers in these disciplines are so unique that it doesn’t make sense to design generalized development or funding programmes for the rest of us. However we can at least take comfort that our best days may be ahead of us!

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6 Responses to “The ages of productivity”

  1. Wesley BurrNo Gravatar Says:

    Questioning your figures on the Nobel numbers: you say that the median age of a winner in physics or chemistry is 55, but I assume that is the median age of the winner *in the year they receive it*, not the median age of the winner calculated at the time of their prize-winning research. Nobel prizes tend to lag the actual work by a significant amount, as it needs to be verified and proven to be truly world-class. For example, Einstein’s prize in physics was awarded in 1921 for work completed in 1905 when he was 26.

    Additionally, you made a misstatement:
    “average median age of a Nobel Peace Prize winner in physics or chemistry”

    It’s not the Nobel Peace Prize in Physics; it’s the Nobel Prize in Physics (etc.) and the Nobel Peace Prize. Very different awards (see Obama’s receipt of the Peace Prize before he had actually accomplished anything vs. a typical winner in physics or chemistry).

  2. Says:

    I’d love to see more stats on funding statistics. Does anyone know if there’s any public data on these (across countries even better)?

  3. jamesNo Gravatar Says:

    I’ve fixed the typo Wesley. Thanks for spotting it.

    And absolutely, there is a lag between accomplishment and winning a Nobel (which might even be negative in Obama’s case). But I think the average median age, over all awards since 1901, is still a reasonable metric with which to illustrate a structural gap between disciplines. If there are better data sets out there to prove or refute this, I’d be keen to take a look.

  4. Rogr BeatyNo Gravatar Says:


    Stages of life apply to all but they are generalities with no hard and fast age delimited milestones.

    As you stated, the top performers are unique. I agree that the use of generalized programmes seems unrealistic and artificial.

    Thanks for doing the calculation on the median age of Nobel prize winners. I’m looking forward to my best days in the future.

  5. Says:

    > I think anti-discrimination laws would make it difficult to explicitly
    > exclude a group of talented researchers just because they’ve
    > reached an arbitrary age barrier.

    When I have looked, eligibility criteria for funding and prizes have been full of arbirary age limits and assumptions about career paths. Given that it is widespread I would be very surprised if it is prevented by anti-discrimination laws.

    In the very next sentence of your posting you cite and arbitrary age limit on the eligibility for the Fields Medal.

  6. John HunterNo Gravatar Says:

    Nice post. I appreciate the difficulty getting perfect measures. I do worry a bit that the lag between accomplishment and Nobel prize may well vary by discipline – which could be a fairly critical issue. I think the Nobel Peace Prize may be the most obvious example. It is often very close to the accomplishment, while science prizes are often decades after the spelled out accomplishment. Whether physics and literature have similar time distances I am not certain. I do think, in order to compare the Peace prize to science prizes though you would need to subtract a large number of years (20?) to compare accomplishment ages.

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