The generation game of scientific research

With age comes wisdom”. The timeless words penned by Oscar Wilde have offered comfort to those afraid of the approaching ailments of old age, the loss of hair, hearing and beauty. However, a recent study has cast doubts over the legitimacy of Wilde’s words when considering the pursuit of scientific knowledge, claiming that the most innovative and cutting-edge research is undertaken by scientists at the beginning of their careers, instead of in later life.

The study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, focused on more than 20 million peer-reviewed biomedical papers, considering the willingness of lead authors to embrace new ideas. The results showed that, during the last 70 years, the inquisitive nature of youth has acted as a catalyst for invention; the first 5 years of a researcher’s career prompts the greatest levels of innovation.

The positive contributory role of young researchers in Science has long been widely assumed but, ultimately, difficult to prove – although this latest study has gone someway to remedying this. The results are based upon a computer program that identified historical ‘hot topics’ appearing in the titles and abstracts of published papers from as far back as 1946. These innovative areas include the likes of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which have been historically prominent areas of biomedical research.

The journal papers were then ranked in order of the date in which the ‘hot topics’ were referenced, indicating which researchers were first to document their interest in the subject. Although the model is unable to depict ‘creativity’, it does give an objective insight into which researchers have been willing to accept novel concepts before their colleagues.

As fresh-faced researchers take their initial steps into the great unknown, the words of Dr Edith Widder, “exploration is the engine that drives innovation” hold credence with those striving for progression.

Although the study highlights the importance of youth, the news isn’t all bad for senior researchers. The findings also suggest that a ‘dream team’ consisting of youthful exuberance and experienced supervision offers the best combination for innovative scientific advancement. For researchers, as with all great explorers, the existence of dependable support is a necessity – for every Sir Edmund Hillary there is a Sherpa Tenzing, for every Indiana Jones there is a Short Round. Indeed, a solid combination of mentorship and teamwork between scientists, both old and new, offers the greatest opportunities for progressive research.

Budding scientists and researchers embarking upon their careers should not underestimate the importance of their supervisors and the experience held by senior colleagues. Meanwhile, they should also remember their ability to approach problems in a more creative, innovative way than their seniors, as the perceived ‘peak’ of wisdom in scientific research is not as distant as it may once have seemed.

Dougie Phillips

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