How Elite Scientists Can Hold Back Science (Vox.com)

There’s an interesting article titled “Study: Elite scientists can hold back science” by Brian Resnick published on Vox.com (http://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2015/12/15/10219330/elite-scientists-hold-back-progress) which looks at a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research titled “Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?”.

The study looks at the publishing patterns of scientific articles by top scientists and shows that after the death of these scientists there is a considerable drop-off in publications by their collaborators, assistants and colleagues, and a corresponding increase in publication by non collaborators.

This study concluded:

Overall, these results suggest that outsiders are reluctant to challenge leadership within a field when the star is alive and that a number of barriers may constrain entry even after she is gone. Intellectual, social, and resource barriers all impede entry, with outsiders only entering subfields that offer a less hostile landscape for the support and acceptance of “foreign” ideas. (http://www.nber.org/papers/w21788)

The study also found that after the death of these luminary scientists, grant funding in their fields dropped off.

Brian Resnick writes:

All this suggest there’s a “goliath’s shadow” effect. People are either prevented from or afraid of challenging a leading thinker in a field. That or scientific subfields are like grown-up versions of high school cafeteria tables. New people just can’t sit there until the queen bee dies.

What’s interesting is that the deaths seemed to hurt the careers of the luminaries’ junior collaborators, the ones who frequently co-authored papers with them but not in a senior role

While some might like to think of the field science as being impartial and unaffected by human weakness, I don’t think that’s a realistic perception. Human nature can affect any field of human activity, and this study is one example of how the quest for the advancement in knowledge can be affected by the influence of some who command high esteem among their peers.

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