Focus on Research

November 18, 2011 12:53 pm

Something for the weekend

It used to be the case that as a scientist, if you had reached the age of 40 without making a scientific breakthrough, the chances were that you were unlikely ever to do so.

The truth was that the majority of chemists and physicists tended to unveil prize-winning research when they were relatively youthful, in their twenties and thirties and certainly before they had notched up their fourth decade.

However, times are changing and if you happen to be a scientist, and in your forties, do not despair. Today the average age of a Nobel prize winning physicist for example is 48 according to research by Benjamin Jones and Bruce Weinberg.

Prof Jones, an associate professor of management and strategy at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University and Prof Weinberg a professor of economics at Ohio State University looked at all 525 Nobel prizes awarded between 1901 and 2008 in the fields of chemistry, physics and medicine and analysed how old each prize winner was at the time they produced their award-winning work.

They have discovered that in general, as the century has progressed, scientists are making their breakthrough discoveries when they have a few more grey hairs on their heads. Before 1905 about two thirds of Nobel prize winners in all three fields had produced a piece of ground-breaking research before the age of 40, with 20 per cent making the breakthrough when they were merely in their twenties. But by 2000 older scientists were beginning to make their mark and there were barely any breakthroughs before the age of 30 in any of the three fields.

“The image of the brilliant young scientist who makes critical breakthroughs in science is increasingly outdated, at least in these three disciplines,” says Prof Weinberg.

The academics suggest that some of the age shift can be explained by how long it takes scientists to complete their training and begin their career - in the early part of the 20th century the majority of the prize winners were receiving their doctorates by their mid twenties. A further reason they say may be to do with the type of breakthrough honoured - either theoretical or experimental.

Prof Weinberg says that their results, Age dynamics in scientific creativity, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences are good news. The research workforce is aging he says and if scientists can continue to be productive in later life it will be of benefit to all three scientific fields.

Reports of executives not revealing the full picture about their companies’ earnings are all too familiar. Now in answer to the question; “Why do they do it?”, a study from the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto suggests that these executives behave the way they do because they are unable to see the whole picture - a concept known as bounded rationality.

Combined with this, these executives have what Ramy Elitzur, an associate professor of accounting at Rotman describes as a “faulty ethical compass”.

Prof Elitzur says that when rational people do something in the short term, that will in the longer term have dire consequences, this is down to the fact that these individuals are only rational up to a limited sense. Prof Elitzur bases his findings on a model that combines game theory (used to predict strategic behaviour) with the concept of bounded rationality (making decisions with limited time, information and an individual’s capacity for analysis).

The model reveals that ethical managers who suffer less from bounded rationality are less likely to take part in earnings manipulation. On the other hand adds Prof Elitzur the model shows that having a less ethical manager may well be in the best interests of current shareholders.

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