A really interesting paper hit the NBER wires recently. The central argument of the paper is that “rock star” thought leaders dominate a field, but when they die, new thought leaders are able to emerge. In summary, there seems to be a cost and a benefit attached to a powerful intellectual: On one hand, powerful leaders drive ideas forward and other researchers can stand on the shoulders of these giants, however, these same giants may leverage their clout to stymie progress and new ideas — especially those ideas that are counter to their own.

Obviously, this sort of empirical work is challenging and teasing out results requires clever experiment techniques.

Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?

We study the extent to which eminent scientists shape the vitality of their fields by examining entry rates into the fields of 452 academic life scientists who pass away while at the peak of their scientific abilities…Consistent with previous research, the flow of articles by collaborators into affected fields decreases precipitously after the death of a star scientist (relative to control fields). In contrast, we find that the flow of articles by non-collaborators increases by 8% on average…

Here is the key chart:

death and ideas

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