Anecdotal observation: ecologists tend to switch from fundamental to applied research as they age. Marc Cadotte used to ask fundamental questions in protist microcosms; now he’s the editor of an applied journal who blogs about the importance of “ecosystem health”. Dave Tilman started out developing resource competition theory and testing it with algae in chemostats; these days he writes a lot about sustainable agriculture. Will Wilson used to do stuff like model Lotka-Volterra species-abundance distributions; now he’s writing a book on stormwater science. Brian started out working on how to test neutral theory, but these days he thinks a lot about how to do policy-relevant science. Meg once said that she was most interested in basic research questions, and she still is, but lately she’s been devoting increasing amounts of time to public education and outreach. Many more examples could be given.
Obviously, many junior people do applied work. Many senior people do fundamental work. And many people do a mix of both. But when somebody switches from doing one to the other, or changes the mix of work they do, it seems like it’s almost always in the direction of more applied work and less fundamental work. I can’t think of anyone who’s gone in the other direction in a big way.
Why is that?
Is it because applied work is easier to justify? Certainly, people who do fundamental work often find it difficult to justify to anyone who’s not also a fundamental researcher, except via some appeal to its purported applications.* But that’s an explanation for why there should be more applied researchers than fundamental researchers, not necessarily an explanation for why people switch from fundamental to applied research as their careers proceed. I mean, why couldn’t most people start out doing applied work, only for some of them to switch to doing fundamental work in their later years? How come nobody ever says, “I’ve spent my entire career to this point helping to save the planet. I’ve done my bit. Now I’m going to work on something just because it’s interesting.”?
Will Wilson says his own change of direction was dictated by the available funding. The need to obtain funding is presumably why many people doing fundamental work pretend that it’s actually applied. But again, that doesn’t necessarily explain why people who do choose to do fundamental work early in their careers would tend to switch away from it later in their careers.
Maybe it’s because senior people have more opportunities to engage in the political process, broadly defined? Early career researchers don’t get invited to testify before Congress, or serve on National Academy panels addressing policy issues, or etc.
Here’s my pet hypothesis: as you progress in your career as a fundamental researcher, it becomes harder to carve out large blocks of time to read and think, and so harder to stay fresh and come up with new fundamental ideas that you and your colleagues are excited about pursuing. As a corollary, your accumulated past reading makes you tend to see the “new” ideas of others as old wine in new bottles. You get frustrated and bored with the apparent lack of fundamental progress in the field, and/or with your own ability to contribute to fundamental progress. Or maybe you just feel like you’ve done what you set out to do in terms of fundamental work. And so applied work starts to seem more attractive.
A corollary of my pet hypothesis is that switches from applied to fundamental work might be hard. If coming up with good interesting fundamental ideas depends on having a lot of time to read and think, well, mid- and late-career applied researchers lack that time just as mid- and late-career fundamental researchers do. So you only ever see people switching from fundamental to applied work, not the reverse.
Or maybe the premise of my question is false. For instance, maybe people at all career stages are shifting towards doing more applied work for whatever reason(s), but I only happen to have noticed the shifts by senior people with whose past fundamental work I happen to be familiar. So I’m overgeneralizing from a small and biased sample.
None of these hypotheses are mutually exclusive, obviously. Different ones could be at work in different individual cases. And I have no idea which ones are most commonly at work.
Not criticizing anyone’s research choices here. Just musing on the reasons for them.
*In an old linkfest (which I can’t find just now), I linked to a very nice post from an economist who’d done a mixture of fundamental and applied work. He looked back to find that none of his applied work had turned out to be of any lasting value, because the applied issues had changed. Whereas much of his old fundamental work was still widely cited today. He interpreted this as an argument in favor of fundamental work over applied work. I’m sorely tempted by this interpretation, since it would justify my life, but I can imagine other interpretations. Perhaps it just shows that fundamental research is conservative or slow-moving, so that the longer citation half-life of fundamental work just reflects the slow pace of change in the field.