Peter A. Lawrence on why older scientists shouldn't be turfed out

“[Older scientists] can provide a deeper perspective on scientific strategy - many young scientists have not grasped the importance of seeking out unsolved and unregarded problems.”

- Peter A. Lawrence, writing in Nature

For a piece in the most recent issue, the esteemed Cambridge zoologist corresponded with more than forty scientists to explore the consequences of enforced retirement, both for researchers as well as their respective fields of study. He compared the European and Japanese systems, which currently mandate an arbitrary retirement age, to that of Australia and the United States, where such discriminatory practice has been banned, and found a great dissatisfaction amongst aging scientists forced to contemplate leaving the bench before they really want to.

Fears that older scientists would be “a bunch of doddering idiots standing in the way of progress” (in the words of 88-year-old scientist John Bonner) were not borne out when American institutions started to allow older scientists to stay at work; many scientists remained highly productive (for example, Francis Crick at the Salk). In fact, abolishing mandatory retirement sparked the emigration of European and Japanese scientists to more progressive countries (such as Chris Nordin, who left the MRC just before retirement age and 27 years later is still going strong in Adelaide).

The key to making this relaxed retirement work, according to Lawrence, is assessing people by their relative merits and not by their age. As Sydney Brenner put it, “I know many 35-year-old scientists who should be retired and some 70-year-olds who are the best postdocs you will ever find.” But in deciding who should stay and who should go, one has to take into account that older scientists often contribute in ways that cannot be measured simply by the number of publications or grants they are still pulling in. Rather, there needs to be an acceptance that many older scientists fulfil valuable roles as mentors, role models, teachers and administrators.

You can read the entire piece here.