Older isn't always wiser, argues Ebdon

V-c says the 'most creative' research flows from young minds at new institutions. John Gill reports

January 29, 2009

Many researchers may be past their prime by 30, a vice-chancellor has said.

The claim comes in the wake of the research assessment exercise, which showed that top-level research is spread across the sector.

The RAE's discovery of a broad distribution of "world-leading" research has caused consternation among research-intensive institutions, with some fearing that the concentration of quality-related funding will be diluted as a result.

But elsewhere, it has been hailed as a "coming of age" for new universities. Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chair of the Million+ think-tank, said the performance of researchers at post-92 universities was indicative of the creativity and productivity of youth.

He said: "The fact is that many researchers produce their best work early on in their career. Einstein is the classic example, but it is true of nearly everybody. When someone produces their best work late in their career, it's something that biographers note because it is so unusual.

"People are most creative and productive early in their career - some people might say before the age of 30, certainly before the age of 40," said Professor Ebdon, 61.

He said the 2008 RAE, which will determine research funding allocations, differed from previous ones as its methodology was tailored to test whether there were pockets of world-leading research across the sector, or whether such work was the exclusive preserve of the traditional research-intensive universities.

"The previous RAE hadn't been able to identify that because it averaged everything out, and so some world-leading researchers (in new universities) were getting very little funding because it was being averaged out among a 'long tail' of other researchers at their institutions. This RAE proved the point that they are widespread," he said.

Describing the post-92 universities as "the nurseries of research", Professor Ebdon acknowledged that it was not unusual for academics who had made their names to move to more "fashionable" institutions.

He said: "It shouldn't be a surprise that we're finding some of the most innovative and creative work at new universities, which bring on a lot of researchers who make their reputation before, very often, moving to more research-intensive ones.

"But the fact remains that those people do much of their highly cited work in that early phase," Professor Ebdon said.


Precocious talents

The notion that researchers are at their best early in life is supported by the curriculum vitae of Albert Einstein, who was 26 when he described his Special Theory of Relativity.

He produced his celebrated formula E=mc2 in his spare time while working in a Swiss patent office.

James Watson was just 25 when he and his lab partner Francis Crick proposed the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule in 1953, demonstrating how genetic instructions are passed on through generations of living organisms.

Crick, however, was an ageing 37 at the time. Another giant of modern science, Isaac Newton, was a positively ancient 44 when, in 1687, he explained the three basic laws that govern the way objects move in his Principia.


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