Science’s greatest discoverers: a shift towards greater interdisciplinarity, top universities and older age

Author : Alexander Krauss

What are the unique features and characteristics of the scientists who have made the greatest discoveries in science? To address this question, we assess all major scientific discoverers, defined as all nobel-prize and major non-nobel-prize discoverers, and their demographic, institutional and economic traits.

What emerges is a general profile of the scientists who have driven over 750 of science’s greatest advances. We find that interdisciplinary scientists who completed two or more degrees in different academic fields by the time of discovery made about half—54%—of all nobel-prize discoveries and 42% of major non-nobel-prize discoveries over the same period; this enables greater interdisciplinary methodological training for making new scientific achievements.

Science is also becoming increasingly elitist, with scientists at the top 25 ranked universities accounting for 30% of both all nobel-prize and non-nobel-prize discoveries. Scientists over the age of 50 made only 7% of all nobel-prize discoveries and 15% of non-nobel-prize discoveries and those over the age of 60 made only 1% and 3%, respectively. The gap in years between making nobel-prize discoveries and receiving the award is also increasing over time across scientific fields—illustrating that it is taking longer to recognise and select major breakthroughs.

Overall, we find that those who make major discoveries are increasingly interdisciplinary, older and at top universities. We also assess here the role and distribution of factors like geographic location, gender, religious affiliation and country conditions of these leading scientists, and how these factors vary across time and scientific fields.

The findings suggest that more discoveries could be made if science agencies and research institutions provide greater incentives for researchers to work against the common trend of narrow specialisation and instead foster interdisciplinary research that combines novel methods across fields.

URL : Science’s greatest discoverers: a shift towards greater interdisciplinarity, top universities and older age