Our aging scientific workforce raises concerns

science
Credit: Petr Kratochvil/Public Domain

The science and engineering workforce in the United States is aging rapidly, according to a new study. And it is only going to get older in coming years.

Economists at The Ohio State University found that the average age of employed scientists increased from 45.1 to 48.6 between 1993 and 2010, faster than the as a whole.

The study estimates that, all else being the same, the average age of U.S. scientists will increase by another 2.3 years in the near future.

"The aging of the scientific workforce is not over - not by a longshot," said David Blau, co-author of the study and professor of economics at Ohio State.

Some researchers have raised concerns that older scientists may not be as creative or productive as those at the beginning of their careers, and might be keeping younger scientists out of the field. But those possibilities haven't been proven, said co-author Bruce Weinberg, also a professor of economics at Ohio State.

"We don't have the answers yet, but we are continuing to investigate the implications of our aging scientific workforce," Weinberg said.

The study was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The main source of data for the study came from the 1993 to 2010 National Science Foundation's Survey of Doctorate Recipients. Blau and Weinberg used detailed information on age, field of degree, job tenure, previous and current employment, occupation and sector of employment on about 73,000 scientists aged 76 or younger. They supplemented this with Census data.

Findings revealed that a substantial majority of the recent aging of the scientific workforce can be attributed to the large number of people in the getting older.

But there is another significant factor at work: Scientists have been working longer since mandatory retirement of university professors ended by law in 1994.

"We have scientists who prior to 1994 would have been forced to retire who are now working to older and older ages," Weinberg said.

In 1993, 18 percent of scientific workers were aged 55 and older, but that nearly doubled to 33 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, the share of all workers 55 and older increased much more modestly, from 15 to 23 percent in the same time period.

Blau and Weinberg created a model to estimate what the future holds for the age distribution of scientific workers. Results suggested that the average age of scientists will go up an additional 2.3 years in the future, all else being the same.

"Even after the baby boom generation is long gone from the workforce, the scientific workforce will still continue to get older," Blau said. "Scientists are retiring later and that will continue to have an effect."

The growth in the number of women and the number of immigrants working in science had no real effect on the age of the workforce, the study found.

Results showed that the average age of scientists in nearly all fields is on the rise. Even computer and information science - which historically has had a much younger workforce than most other fields - has seen a graying of the workforce. In fact, the average age of computer scientists is increasing more rapidly than other fields, narrowing the historical gap.

This study is part of a larger project by Blau and Weinberg to determine what happens to the productivity and creativity of scientists as they get older.

"The conventional wisdom has been that become less creative and less innovative as they age," said Weinberg. But some of his own research has suggested otherwise.

"My work suggests the conventional story isn't as true as we might think," he said. "Many of the scientific fields people think about are not typical and over time people are starting to be more productive at later ages."

The ongoing project will shed more light on this issue, the researchers said.


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More information: Why the US science and engineering workforce is aging rapidly, PNAS, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1611748114
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Mar 27, 2017
Re: "Some researchers have raised concerns that older scientists may not be as creative or productive as those at the beginning of their careers, and might be keeping younger scientists out of the field."

This is not an accurate statement of the problem. Older researchers are simply prone to defending older ideas and older modes of operation, long past their prime.

The way in which the article states the problem probably creates confusion on this issue.

Mar 28, 2017
I think this may be field specific. In some fields experience might bear higher weight than youthful innovation. But it is good that this will be studied. In one way I think that it is bad to retire people just because they are older than certain age. Certainly this applies to physical works like firefighting, but not for brainwork.

Mar 28, 2017
Even computer and information science - which historically has had a much younger workforce than most other fields

OK, since computer science wasn't (much of) a thing 30-40 years ago it's not surprising that this group would get older.

The impact of age on creativity is something to consider, but may be not as strong as all that. With the rapid accumulation of knowledge it also takes longer for young scientists to get 'up to speed' until they can make a contribution. Just being creative - while indubitably important - isn't enough. A solid knowledge base is essential otherwise one ends up just inadvertently reproducing the brilliant ideas of others.

Mar 28, 2017
I wonder if this extends worldwide. Here in the US, we've developed a culture where the talentless and/or willfully ignorant can rise to prominence (e.g., Kim Kardashian or Donald Trump). So why would a young person feel compelled to work hard to actually learn something? And our immigration policies are set up to discourage any intelligent, hard working scientist or engineer to immigrate, so we've lost some of our traditional source for young scientists and engineers. Maybe they're all going somewhere else in the world.

Mar 28, 2017
I personally feel left out. I have what i consider to be amazing ideas all the time but i have nobody to help me express them in rigorous scientific terms or help develop my ideas. It seems the entire science industry has been co-opted for the purposes of the large corporations or in secret government work. The few remaining scientists are just drones who are forced to do the mind numbing grunt work of fleshing out old discoveries.

What we need is to use the internet as a forum (ive been banned numerous times from the phys.org forums simply for suggesting ideas)

Mar 28, 2017
"Science advances one funeral at a time."

― Max Planck

Mar 28, 2017
I personally feel left out. I have what i consider to be amazing ideas all the time but i have nobody to help me express them in rigorous scientific terms or help develop my ideas.

Translation: "I want to do no work - let others do it fo me"

Yeah, everyone wants to be a general and no one wants to be a foot soldier. But everyone forgets that you don't start out as a general - you work your way up.

And the reason no one is helping you is that the people who actually have put in the effort to get the knowledge have a zillion and one great ideas of their own...that's why they put in the effort in the firts place, you know?

Don't fool yourself: What seem like 'great ideas' without any backing in science are almost exclusively really stupid brainfarts (and the few that aren't are already old hat to scientists). There's no chance you contribute anything with your approach.

Mar 29, 2017
2.3 years needn't be a problem if management pay for update training on new tech and techniques. If they don't; then 2.3 years can be a long time; especially in some fields like IT or biochemistry.

A more experienced scientific community will avoid rookie mistakes:- A corporation I had to advise, recently blew £100M trying to use commodity IT for what was effectively a real time function. No matter how much infrastructure and caching they threw at it, critical data arrived late sometimes. A young sales team had made promises they could not deliver.

On the other hand a young agile team not bound by old dogmas often see potential in new ideas before the older, admin bound, members do. I like to work in balanced teams as they are more stimulating and more effective.

I would like to see the age demographics within ITER and NASA: to see which teams are tackling issues with fresh insights and which are just plodding onward.

Mar 29, 2017
If you are a 46 year old who feels his science gets boring, you should see if there is a smokeable product that will make you cerebral, dreamy, motivated, confused, inventive, once/twice a month... Then you would be momentarily rejuvenated.

Mar 29, 2017
Scientists are motivated. If they weren't they'd drop out, get some industry job and rake in multiple times the salary they are getting as scientists. With a PhD and multiple years of experience it's absolutely no problem to get a job anywhere you please.

So I don't see this 'plodding along' as really an issue amongst scientists. The ones who are in there doing actual science are creative - no matter how old they are.
(Just don't confuse scientists with those who turn into science managers. Those can be plodding as any bureaucrat but they aren't involved in the actual science part.)

Mar 30, 2017
Certainly this applies to physical works like firefighting, but not for brainwork
@PPihkala
firefighting isn't just about physical work either, though - you would be surprised
just sayin'

.

I personally feel left out. I have what i consider to be amazing ideas all the time but i have nobody to help me express them in rigorous scientific terms or help develop my ideas
@cave man
may i make some suggestions?
1- first, learn the science and how to be rigorous https://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm

2- draft your ideas into coherent thoughts using the guidelines of the scientific method https://en.wikipe...c_method

3- gather evidence, make hypothesis, predictions, experiments, etc

4- ask for collaboration from sites like this: https://www.khanacademy.org

or this: https://brainly.com/

not from news aggregates like phys.org

.

most important thing to know: it takes a sh*tload of hard work on your part
no one is going to do it for you

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