“The idea here is not that we should start to off random senior scientists to make room for the new blood”. (Or is it?)

MIT's Stata Center
Stata Center, MIT

Inside Higher Ed reports on a new study by MIT professor Pierre Azoulay on the impact of the deaths of star scientists on their fields. It turns out, it’s not all bad (except for the star scientist in question, obviously):

For their study, Azoulay and his co-authors examined the relationship between the relatively early or sudden deaths of 452 eminent scientists between 1975 and 2003 and the subsequent “vitality” of the field, measured in publication rates and flow of federal funding.

The total sample of elite scientists was about 13,000, or about 5 percent of the total labor market. The average age of premature death was 61, and all scientists included in this subgroup were still active researchers before they died.

Following the deaths of star scientists, subfields saw an 8.6 percent increase in articles published by those scientists who had not previously collaborated with the late luminaries. Those papers were disproportionately likely to be highly cited. All effects are compared to control subfields, which are associated with superstars who did not die.

The effects were more pronounced for those who were previously “outsiders” to the subfields.

“To our surprise, it is not competitors from within a subfield that assume the mantle of leadership, but rather entrants from other fields that step in to fill the void created by a star’s absence,” the paper says. “Importantly, this surge in contributions from outsiders draws upon a different scientific corpus and is disproportionately likely to be highly cited.”

Here’s the abstract of the original article, available here.

We examine how the premature death of eminent life scientists alters the vitality of their fields. While the flow of articles by collaborators into affected fields decreases after the death of a star scientist, the flow of articles by non-collaborators increases markedly. This surge in contributions from outsiders draws upon a different scientific corpus and is disproportionately likely to be highly cited. While outsiders appear reluctant to challenge leadership within a field when the star is alive, the loss of a luminary provides an opportunity for fields to evolve in new directions that advance the frontier of knowledge.

This reminds me of something else life-science related: Margaret Heffernan’s work (described in this TED talk) on “superchickens,” and the importance of social cohesion over charisma in workplaces. She builds on the work of biologist William Muir, who:

wanted to know what could make his chickens more productive, so he devised a beautiful experiment. Chickens live in groups, so first of all, he selected just an average flock, and he let it alone for six generations. But then he created a second group of the individually most productive chickens — you could call them superchickens — and he put them together in a superflock, and each generation, he selected only the most productive for breeding.

After six generations had passed, what did he find? Well, the first group, the average group, was doing just fine. They were all plump and fully feathered and egg production had increased dramatically. What about the second group? Well, all but three were dead. They’d pecked the rest to death. The individually productive chickens had only achieved their success by suppressing the productivity of the rest….

[F]or the past 50 years, we’ve run most organizations and some societies along the superchicken model. We’ve thought that success is achieved by picking the superstars, the brightest men, or occasionally women, in the room, and giving them all the resources and all the power. And the result has been just the same as in William Muir’s experiment: aggression, dysfunction and waste. If the only way the most productive can be successful is by suppressing the productivity of the rest, then we badly need to find a better way to work and a richer way to live.

One striking feature of the companies I write about in SHORTER (US | UK) is that they avoid being superchicken organizations, and they use a variety of tools to make sure that they privilege cohesion and collaboration over heroic action. In fact, I first heard about Margaret Heffernan nd the superchicken phenomenon from Tash Walker, who moved her company to a 4-day week a couple years ago.

Scroll Up