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Innovation: Burden of knowledge and teamwork

Evariste Lefeuvre By Evariste Lefeuvre Published on December 21, 2015

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2015 has marked the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s discovery of the foundations of the general theory of relativity. Aged 26 at the time, he was one in a long line of precocious inventors and researchers: Evariste Galois changed the history of mathematics before being killed in a duel at the age of 20. And that was how old Bill Gates was when he founded Microsoft together with Paul Allen in 1975. Well before them, Newton distinguished himself at the age of 23 with his work on gravity. There is a long list of young prodigies who have marked scientific history and led to drastic changes in our way of seeing, thinking about and mastering the world.

Annus Mirabilis

The question of the link between age and scientific genius goes back a very long time. There are many studies that set the age of major discoveries to between of 30 and 40. All of them also suggest that productivity tends to drop sharply once a venerable age has been reached. This is what drives many economists to fear that population ageing will end up weighing on technological progress, and therefore on growth in the medium term.

The reasons for this decline are not very clear. Nothing indicates that prime-age scientists stop adopting or lose interest in scientific breakthroughs. Then again, it is possible that since they have been stuck in a given scientific paradigm for too long, they are far less inclined to question it. Einstein and Schrödinger dedicated more than 30 years of their lives to trying to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics in a single theory. Apart from all the quarrels this may have given rise to between the two men, it illustrates the difficulties any scientist has in moving outside his own analytical framework (theoretical, philosophical, etc.). It was this that drove Einstein to denigrate the many empirical successes of the probabilistic approach of quantum mechanics and to pronounce his famous sentence “God does not play dice with the universe”!

It seems easier to disprove a scientific theory for someone who has been exposed to this theory intensely, but not for too long, i.e. at the end of one’s studies, than for someone who has dedicated half his life to it. This is the ideal time to break with the past and call things into question, and to come up with alternative solutions.

There are also other sociological or institutional explanations of the fall in productivity with age among researchers. In particular, they become subject to various distractions that increase as they age: numerous invitations to symposiums, administrative burden, family life. Conversely, there are also entry barriers, implicit or not, applied by top researchers and professors that may defer the age of the first discoveries (Albert Einstein worked at a patent office, far from the academic world, when he published his first works). Lastly, the age/discoveries curve is not the same for all sciences. Maturity, or the peak age of discoveries, varies according to the disciplines. Young talents more frequently stand out in highly conceptual subjects (mathematics, physics). On the other hand, it is not rare that new discoveries are driven by older individuals in experimental sciences such as medicine.

Burden of knowledge

The nature of scientific discoveries and the innovation process are very often based on the combination of existing research. The more humanity ages, the more the accumulation of knowledge requires an increase in the number of years it takes to acquire this knowledge. This is what the economist Benjamin Jones calls the “burden of knowledge”. Contrary to physical capital, human capital is transferred via education. The time that has to be spent on it increases the more humanity increases its expertise. Knowledge generates knowledge, but it takes longer and longer to accumulate this very knowledge which, especially when innovation is based on the overlapping of several disciplines, may have consequences for technological progress and the “productivity” of research. According to the author, one must choose between a perpetual extension of the learning time or greater specialization, which he claims would require the “death of the Renaissance man” to the benefit of a world of specialists and teamwork.

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To back up his theory, Jones points out that during the twentieth century, the age at which “great inventors” produced their first discoveries increased by six years (+0.6 year per decade). Even so, that was not offset by an extension of the threshold or the age limit from when the number of patents filed falls sharply. That means that the time range during which major innovations are likely to be made has become shorter. Such a development can be explained by the widening of the field of knowledge each individual must draw on to make associations and innovate. The increase in the stock of knowledge goes hand in hand with an increase in the number of years dedicated to acquire this knowledge. This effort to accumulate human capital results in a decline in discoveries made by young people under 30. Unfortunately, once researchers turn 40, their performance still falls at the same pace as in the past, whatever the discipline.

Is this a risk for technological progress? Or on the contrary, will not the death of the Renaissance man usher in another way to conduct research?

The Renaissance man was often alone, but it would be naïve to believe that teamwork has not been at the heart of the innovation process for a long time. Even though one (or several) individual often plays a key role, there are many examples of research offices that were founded as a result of major technological breakthroughs. One can obviously think of the Volta Bureau and Laboratory founded in 1880 by Bell and initially dedicated to research on deafness. The Xerox Parc and the Manhattan Project managed by Robert Oppenheimer and the Argonne National Laboratory are other good examples. The size of the research teams grew by 15% per decade in the twentieth century. The burden of research has often been accompanied by greater specialization of individuals.

The history of the electric battery is a very good example of teamwork, multidisciplinarity and the potential for creative disruption of young researchers. In his book The Powerhouse, Steve Levine describes the spectacular breakthrough made by the well-named John Goodenough. A mathematician by training, he was invited after the Second World War to attend physics classes at the University of Chicago where he started to “I don’t understand you veterans. Don’t you know that anyone who has ever done anything significant in physics has already done it by the time he was your age?”. He later moved to Oxford to teach and manage the laboratory of inorganic chemistry, and four years later laid the basis for one of the greatest breakthroughs in batteries in 60 years. Together with two doctoral students, he invented the lithium-ion battery which would “pave the way for the resurrection of electric vehicles”. Even though he is credited for the spectacular breakthrough invention of NMC (Nickel, Manganese, Cobalt) technology, Goodenough would probably not have moved beyond the horizon of the lithium-ion battery without the intuition of a young South African researcher specialized in crystals: Mike Thackeray. The young researcher’s counterintuitive approach was initially rejected by his older colleague: it violated physics. Thackeray’s experiments ended up proving that his idea was correct. The two men subsequently discussed the paternity of the invention, but Goodenough finally summed up the research process: “Nobody was just hanging around talking about his own results. It is through interaction and opening up to others that the ideas come”. Without NMC technologies, which are safer and give a longer battery life, there would be no hybrid cars. 

Evariste Lefeuvre began his career at Caisse des Depots et Consignation in 1999 as the U.S. economist before being appointed Deputy Head of Research in 2003. In 2006 he created the Multi Asset ... Show More

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