New Ideas Sprout When Superstar Scientists Die

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Researchers have decided to test whether science really advances one funeral at a time — a bit of wisdom commonly attributed to quantum physics pioneer Max Planck. The notion could easily apply to many areas of human endeavor: It’s plausible that powerful people and their inner circles do keep certain ideas or ways of thinking dominant, while unconsciously creating the assumption that opposing ideas must be wrong.

The lead researcher on this death study, MIT economics professor Pierre Azoulay, said he set out to understand the impact of scientific “superstars” — for better or worse — on intellectual progress. One way to study their impact, he realized, would be to see what happened when they died. The result was included in a special section in this week’s issue of Science, devoted to meta-science — research into the nature of research.

At first, he said, he and colleagues went around asking scientists what they thought happened after stars in their field died. Some said it was a terrible loss for science, but others, he said, were a little more jaded, saying there might be an upside, because superstars tend to suck all the oxygen out of the room.

To find out who was right, Azoulay and his colleagues examined the scientific literature in various sub-fields of the life sciences for five years after superstars died. The stars could die young or old, he said, but they had to die “prematurely” while they were still actively publishing.

They quickly found that the deaths of superstars hurt those stars’ collaborators. “Their productivity really suffers,” he said. But they also found deaths had the opposite effect on non-collaborators. A star's death is followed by an influx of new people into the field, coming from related fields, with different ideas. The new people published lots of papers, and their papers were cited lots, indicating that they had an impact. The references in the newcomers’ papers were different, Azoulay said, suggesting they were coming at scientific problems from new angles. (This result is not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal.)

Azoulay says these newcomers may have faced barriers to entry that were lowered after superstars died. Deaths in an academic discipline, like extinctions in an ecosystem, open up new niches. Of course, death is not strictly necessary for this flourishing: Established stars can be cognizant of their sometimes disproportionate power, and give new people with new ideas a chance.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.