Saturday, August 15, 2009

What a poor professor job market does

Here is an interesting statistic:

"Over the last century and a half, the average age of a Nobel Prize winner at the moment of his great breakthrough has risen more than five years, from 34 to almost 39 years old."

The authors take it as a sign that the amount of pre-existing work means that you have to be older to contribute to science, you just need to know more before you catch up with the state of the art.

I read it and think this is just a sign of how bad the job market is. You have to be so much older to get a chance at doing independent research. What the heck are we doing giving most of our funding to old people when the average age of a noble prize generating idea is a 39 year old! While I don't feel like looking up the exact number, right now the average age someone gets their first NIH grant is about 43. If they are in the life sciences they don't even get a tenure track position until something like 38. This means that most of the NIH grant money is being thrown at people with a comparatively low probability of generating truly breakthrough research, while the best minds languish in other people's labs waiting for someone to finally die or retire opening up a real position. Some sort of reform is needed so that the career path into science on average ends at people doing independent research by about 30.

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