Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?

Authors: Pierre Azoulay, Christian Fons-Rosen and Joshua S. Graff Zivin

American Economic Review, Vol. 109, No 8, 2889-2920, August, 2019

We examine how the premature death of eminent life scientists alters the vitality of their fields. While the flow of articles by collaborators into affected fields decreases after the death of a star scientist, the flow of articles by non-collaborators increases markedly. This surge in contributions from outsiders draws upon a different scientific corpus and is disproportionately likely to be highly cited. While outsiders appear reluctant to challenge leadership within a field when the star is alive, the loss of a luminary provides an opportunity for fields to evolve in new directions that advance the frontier of knowledge within them.

This paper originally appeared as Barcelona School of Economics Working Paper 857