I’ve recently had a number of casual discussions with senior academics from many fields, each of which has shed light on a significant problem, one that we will likely regret 10-20 years from now. It is the doughnut hole that is being fashioned now at the heart of academic research, as more grants go to older scientists while younger scientists go without. As a result, many younger researchers are leaving academic research in pursuit of other interests and jobs that pay more.
It’s not a new problem, but it seems to be getting worse, even as more funding goes to the NIH and other government research bodies.
Earlier this month, Andy Harris, a Republican congressional representative from Maryland and a physician, wrote an impassioned plea in the New York Times to address the situation. Entitled, “Young, Brilliant, and Underfunded,” the editorial sheds light on a few startling facts:
- Most Nobel recipients made their discoveries before they were 40 years old, which suggests that the most dramatic and fertile years of research may be the earliest years.
- The proportion of federal research funding going to investigators older than 65 was greater than that going to researchers younger than 35.
- The average age of a researcher receiving an NIH R01 grant has risen from 38 to 42 years since 2005.
- More funding seems to make things worse, as increases in funding have actually accelerated these trends.
Harris is advocating for a law that would require the NIH to lower the average age of grant recipients steadily over a multi-year period, with the average age returning to 38 by 2025. He also points to a budgeting device called a “tap,” which allows the Department of Health and Human Services to divert $700 million of NIH funding for other purposes. This money, Harris argues, would do more good funding studies headed by young researchers. As it is now, it simply helps bureaucrats smooth over budgetary gaps.
This editorial was followed shortly by a story in Science, which shed additional light on the problem. The story notes that Harris’ most productive research years were in his 30s, when he had three successive NIH grants to study cerebral blood flow in developing fetuses. Harris has strong proponents on his side, including the head of the NIH, Francis Collins, but there are many attempts to block reform. Some argue that the average age has increased simply because it takes longer to train a new scientist. Others are worried that funding more young researchers would just stress the system further.
A recent tweet from a cancer researcher in Australia shows that the problem is not limited to the US, as Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council data reflect a similar worrying trend:
— Dr Darren Saunders (@whereisdaz) October 20, 2014
While the problem doesn’t seem to be as dramatic in Australia yet, the trend is still worrying. There have been complaints about research being more incremental, delivering marginal value. The lack over the past 20 years of blockbuster new drugs and devices seems to corroborate these concerns in biomedicine.
Anecdotes suggest that physicians are also holding onto practices and senior positions longer, frustrating the surge of mature physicians behind them and extending the feeling of the endless fellowship, complete with scut work and lower pay.
There are macroeconomic issues atop all of this, including austerity programs, inadequate retirement programs, and student debt burdens in the US. There is also the overall problem of soft money in academia, which was summarized nicely in my interview last year with economist Paula Stephan, author of the book, “How Economics Shapes Science.” I’ll let these words close the post, as they explain many of the dynamics at play in an environment defined more and more by soft money rather than solid employment options:
For academics hired in soft money positions, it’s not just a question of whether they have support to do the research and maintain their lab. It’s also a question of whether they will continue to have a job and a paycheck. So funding is incredibly important to the academic enterprise. Furthermore, past research results play an important role in determining whether an individual is funded. Research producing “positive” results (and published in top journals) is what reviewers look for. There’s little to be gained in the peer review grant system if what one has discovered does not contribute, in a positive way, to the accumulation of knowledge. And there’s absolutely no role for “failed” studies, where the research simply does not pan out. Indeed, the pressure to be sure there’s not a failure down the road, leads funding agencies to look for strong preliminary data before funding a research project. At NIGMS at NIH it was common to say “no crystal, no grant.”