Guttering talent:
Back in the day when some things sometimes actually seemed funny, there were among the best talent the Marx brothers.  There was a skit which involved Groucho undertaking to hire a small band and Chico negotiating on behalf of the band.  Chico named a price for the performance, which seemed acceptable to Groucho, but then Chico explained Groucho would also have to pay for them to rehearse.  Groucho balked and said if that was the case they’d just have to perform without rehearsing, only to find that it would cost even more.  Irritated, Groucho then asked sarcastically what it would cost if they didn’t perform at all.  With consummate timing Chico said, “You couldn’t afford it.”

Now there is something under discussion called the “emeritus grant.”  Seem clear enough?  The issue is that, as has long been observed, the oldest scientists get the lion’s share of the grants for doing research.  (Boer Deng, NIH Ponders “Emeritus Grants” NATURE vol. 518 no. 7538 February 12, 2015 page 146) This would hardly seem a surprise since with time and experience one might get better and better at writing grant proposals.  On the other hand there is sort of a superstition that young people have lots of good ideas because they are young, have lots of neurons in their brains and bring in a fresh perspective.  So the best, most creative work ought to be coming from the young people.  That’s where the grant money ought to be going.  But instead it goes to the old scientists. 

So the emeritus grant is money to be given to the most senior scientists if they will close their lab work, and then maybe there will be more money for the younger ones and we will get better science.

So truly they are considering paying their most productive scientists not to perform. 

There has been of course some griping.  The younger scientists are saying things like, “But those guys have been saving all their careers.  They’re ready to retire.  What about giving us money?  We need it more.”  And although it would be understandable that young scientists were getting discouraged and leaving the field, there is in fact no shortage of them.  After all, it’s a pretty good career.  Pay is adequate.  You don’t have to move around a lot.  It’s not like medicine where your skills rapidly decay if you employ them rather than sitting around honing them full time.  A law suit is not likely to end your career.  The hours likely are not as crazy as business or medicine might demand.  It’s a job. 

So it may not happen.

But I suspect what is actually going on is far more grim.  The real gatekeepers in research are the referees.  When a journal takes an interest in a paper they will send it to a couple experts in the field.  Those by and large do not know who wrote the paper, far less how old that person is.  Their job is to decide whether or not the paper is good enough to publish.  And it’s pretty much a level playing field.  These are senior scientists themselves, the very men the “emeritus grants” are supposed to close down, and these referees are not paid.  They just do it because the field needs it.

So the probable bottom line is simply that the young people are no match for the oldsters.   Of course there is an advantage to youth.  But the relevant youth just aren’t there.  The most capable members of the older generation already have not had their children, are not going to be replaced by people of comparable ability. 

I see it everywhere.  In the news a headline screamed about a deadly new virus; in fact it is a bacterium.  The science and health writer does not know the difference.  There is a headline that shouts that ISIS is showing signs of strain.  But the article merely describes their stresses; a professional writer who wrote that headline does not know the difference between stress and strain.  Indeed the standards of journalism may be declining because with the internet there are fewer and fewer reporters, but they still ought to be able to speak the language.

It is we who are showing signs of strain.  Among organizations the classical sign of strain is when the actors start turning on each other.  President Obama called a meeting of a lot of countries to discuss terrorism.  That to begin with is a shaky move.  The invitation translates as, “I think you are a prime target for terrorism, and I’m telling the world.”  Then there was no proposal of a systematic, united approach.  Instead those loyal enough to attend were told, “It’s all your own fault.  You haven’t integrated your immigrants.”  This is an attack on friends.  And now it turns out that we have been involved with spying on the Netherlands, a natural friend, to whom we should now apologize.  But I see no apology in the news either for that or for those Obama addressed.  We seem ready enough to apologize for things done generations ago, but we are insulting friends and I suspect we don’t even know it.  The advisors who should be telling Obama rules of common courtesy simply aren’t there.  They weren’t born.

When I was talking about Swedish wedding bells I think I predicted that our birth rate should take a terrible hit in about fourteen years.  I have a friend who insists the age is closer to 36.  That puts the crisis in ten years.  Well we’re not done trying yet, and a single data set is not the whole world.

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