The young, who else?

By Martin Vetterli

​(From "Horizons" no. 106, September)
Image: © Fotolia / casanowe

Ignorance is a very important driver of research. It is said that the 12-year-old Albert Einstein asked his mother what he would see if he travelled at the speed of light holding a mirror in front of him. And in the early 17th century, Pierre de Fermat asked himself if the equation a2 + b2 = c2 would have integer solutions for powers greater than two. More recently Michel Mayor from the University of Geneva decided to build an instrument to find out if there were planets outside our solar system, thinking he might not see them in his lifetime – reality contradicted him in 1995.

Thus, many relevant questions in science are the result of a naïve and sometimes slightly ignorant mind-set. But when combined with intelligence, curiosity, creativity and a bit of luck, these ignorant questions can generate new knowledge, new artefacts and eventually new tools to benefit society at large.From the science funding point of view, the question that obviously arises is, where can one find this innocent scientific ignorance in today’s science? The answer is – and probably always has been – in young researchers, as is nicely illustrated by the example of Albert Einstein. In fact, we know scientists are often most productive at a young age. And it is thus the young that generate breakthroughs by asking bizarre questions and coming up with strange new theories.

Unfortunately, however, academia does not seem to have enough space for young researchers today. The magazine Nature showed recently that retirement-age investigators of the US National Institutes of Health have outnumbered those under 36 for a few years now – and the trend is getting worse. Furthermore, the average age at which a young life scientist in the US receives his or her first independent grant – not even a professorship – has increased from 36 in 1980 to 42 today.

In Switzerland, the trend points in a similar direction. While in the 19th century, the average age of becoming a (full!) professor at the ETH Zurich’s Chemistry department was around 35 years, today scientists can consider themselves lucky if they manage to get some independence at that age. It has thus become very difficult for young scientists to realise their own ideas and to achieve an independent academic career. Many bright young minds are therefore leaving academia and looking for opportunities elsewhere.

This is a very delicate situation. Because losing these minds also means losing the very engine for ignorant innovation and discovery. Or, to put it in the words of Sydney Brenner, a Nobel Laureate in medicine, “I strongly believe that the only way to encourage innovation is to give it to the young. The young have a great advantage in that they are ignorant. Because I think ignorance in science is very important. If you are like me and you know too much, you cannot try new things.”