Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?

Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?

January 13, 2016 Behavioral Finance, Uncategorized
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(Last Updated On: January 1, 2017)

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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Definitions of common statistics used in our analysis are available here (towards the bottom)




About the Author

Wesley R. Gray, Ph.D.

After serving as a Captain in the United States Marine Corps, Dr. Gray earned a PhD, and worked as a finance professor at Drexel University. Dr. Gray’s interest in bridging the research gap between academia and industry led him to found Alpha Architect, an asset management that delivers affordable active exposures for tax-sensitive investors. Dr. Gray has published four books and a number of academic articles. Wes is a regular contributor to multiple industry outlets, to include the following: Wall Street Journal, Forbes, ETF.com, and the CFA Institute. Dr. Gray earned an MBA and a PhD in finance from the University of Chicago and graduated magna cum laude with a BS from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.