Wisdom from the Astronomer Royal.
Fifty years ago, my generation benefited from the fact that the science profession was still growing exponentially, riding on the expansion of higher education. Then, the young outnumbered the old; moreover, it was normal (and generally mandatory) to retire by one’s mid-60s. The academic community, at least in the West, isn’t now expanding much (and in many areas has reached saturation level), and there is no enforced retirement age. In earlier decades, it was reasonable to aspire to lead a group by one’s early 30s—but in, for example, the United States’ biomedical community, it’s now unusual to get your first research grant before the age of 40. This is a bad augury. Science will always attract nerds who can’t envisage any other career. And laboratories can be staffed with those content to spend their time writing grant applications that usually fail to get funding.
But the profession needs to attract a share of those with flexible talent, and the ambition to achieve something by their 30s. If a perceived prospect evaporates, some people will shun academia, and maybe attempt a start-up. This route offers great satisfaction and public benefit—many should take it—but in the long run it’s important that some such people dedicate themselves to the fundamental frontiers. The advances in IT and computing can be traced back to basic research done in leading universities—in some cases nearly a century ago. And the stumbling blocks encountered in medical research stem from uncertain fundamentals. The depressing failure of anti-Alzheimer drugs to pass clinical tests suggests not enough is yet known about how the brain functions, and that effort should refocus on basic science.