English: A plain glazed donut. This was bought...
English: A plain glazed donut. This was bought at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Brooklyn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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:

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.”

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


20 Thoughts on "Old and Stale? — Aging Researchers, Funding Trends, and the Doughnut Effect"

The argument about the longer track to train scientists is explicitly mentioned in the post above.

Are you referring to this sentence? “Some argue that the average age has increased simply because it takes longer to train a new scientist.”

To me it doesn’t quite capture the point made in the Australian data. For example, the report says that fewer students are going directly from undergraduate to postgraduate studies. This doesn’t mean the net time to train a new scientist is longer – only that students are graduating and going away to do other things, before coming back to embark on a PhD.

On an unrelated point, what is the significance of the graph showing an increase in age of CIs on NHMRC grants? The salaries of CIs are generally not funded through these grants, whereas salaries for research personnel, including PhD students, are. http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/file/grants/apply/programs/program_grants_funding_rules_funding_commencing_2014.pdf (p.10)

The increasing difficulty in finding funding is certainly a major issue for many young scientists. In the recent panel of early career researchers at the Frankfurt STM conference, one of the researchers suggested that science can sometimes look like a bit of an old-boys network. As funding gets tighter, it may be the case that the temptation is to resist allowing new people with new ideas into the club. I wrote a piece in the Kitchen that was published a couple of weeks ago that talks about these issues to some degree and I’m in the process of writing a follow-up piece with more details about that aspect.


When I knew a lot of people, including myself that were applying for NIH grants, one issue seemed to be the large amount of store that the NIH place on the level of support that the applicants institution was giving to them and the dependance on an established track record. You can understand why these might be important considerations but from seeing grants that colleagues submitted, it seemed like to get a first grant funded, an applicant would have to submit a significantly better grant than a more experienced researcher would have to submit. To add to that observation, a senior colleague warmed me once to never put anything actually innovative in a grant, if you do, it’ll be dismissed as unlikely to be successful.

That was actually one of my most important considerations in deciding to leave academic science.

It seems to me that at least in the US, funding is a matter of political commitment. I would say that right now and in the immediate future there is a strong strain of anti-science residing in the legislature. This anti-science position is leading to decreased funding. Additionally, those being elected have little sympathy for anything that may move society forward but great sympathy for biblical studies.

I don’t agree with this. While there is an anti-science strain in the country, which is reflected in Congress, the bigger issue for many is simply whether this is the business of the government. It’s an ideological question, and scientific research happens to be one of the battlefields. I don’t like this any more than you do, but let’s not confuse political philosophy with culture wars.

I do not see that at all Harvey. I follow the Congressional science authorization and appropriations processes pretty closely and the folks involved are dedicated to science. They do disagree on which science is most important. Nor have basic research budgets declined that I can think of, except possibly in the DOD. People are complaining because NSF and DOE basic science are not on track for doubling, but that is not the same as decreasing.

I wonder where they get their age data? I do not recall ever supplying age related data with any of my Energy Dept. research grants but maybe NIH is different.

The Nobel prize argument seems tenuous at best. I wonder what percentage of winners had their first big idea while a funded PI? Younger researchers tend to work for older researchers, but that does not necessarily rule out or even reduce their making important discoveries. There is an assumption about the nature of science and funding here that may be questionable.

The Nobel Prize argument is a bit specious. The prize is not awarded posthumously, and work is often not recognized for decades. This selects against the older researcher.

The Nobel Prize argument is also out of date now. A 2011 study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that if one just counts Nobel prizes awarded after 1985, the average age at which medical scientists make their prize-winning discoveries is 45. See ‘Experience counts for Nobel Laureates’ for more details: http://www.nature.com/news/2011/111107/full/news.2011.632.html

I wonder how many older scientists will argue that the approach suggested amounts to age-discrimination?

Technically I think it is a statistical affirmative action program. The proposed age range is so small that I doubt the statistics are accurate enough to support it, plus it would be an administrative nightmare, given the highly distributed decisions involved in making research grants across an agency. And yes it discriminates against the group that is deemed to have too much.

As David says, it’s closer to affirmative action rather than age discrimination. Many would argue that ideas like this are attempts to tackle institutionalized discrimination that currently exists, but let’s not get sidetracked here.

If there is a problem with the logic here, it’s that ‘young’ and ‘early career stage’ are being conflated. Although I did talk about lack of funding being an issue for younger researchers in my previous comment, to be more precise, the real issue is a lack of funding for people who are at the beginning of their scientific careers or changing fields, and particularly those with new ideas.

The age of awardees is a proxy measure here, and perhaps that’s okay. If funding agencies shift their focus onto new and fresh ideas and reduce the trend of grant review panels that fund colleagues who have been doing the same thing for 30 years, the average age will likely fall.

It’s worth taking a moment here to consider how the NIH or other funding bodies would achieve this goal. What they wouldn’t do is to tell all of their grant review panels to just fund more young people, they’re smart enough to know that that wouldn’t work. What they would do is put more money into programs like the K25 or K99/R00 (affectionately known as the kangaroo) career development awards. If I had the ear of the director of the NIH, I would suggest that those programs should a) get more money and b) weight publication track record less when scoring applications. Alternatively, perhaps a new funding mechanism could be created that doesn’t require as much evidence of institutional support.

I see this as a consequence of what happened in federal court in 1994. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act was extended to cover university faculty members and the predicted result has been pretty clear: Faculty are getting old and hanging around through their 70’s and beyond. At Cornell, more than 1 in 3 faculty members are over 60. The Chronicle of Higher Ed did a piece on this in 2012 and you can see the demographic distribution at Cornell and how it has been changing over time. I really don’t see how this is going to be solved as most solutions run head-first into some form of discrimination and would be overturned by the courts.

In Australia, another factor is the “retirement age”, or the age at which one can access superannuation and/or aged pensions. These are getting steadily increased by successive governments in order to keep people in the workforce. I also get a sense from some older colleagues that they can’t afford to retire, and are worried about being a burden on their adult children if they stop working.

In Japan, I would hazard a guess and say that that the peak of that graph lies even further to the right than the US data. Maybe even worse in China. And goodness knows how much worse in some developing countries where the tradition of a vertical social hierarchical structure is acute. Even though there appears to be this trend, relative to the rest of the world, is it really that bad, I wonder? What is the underlying logic behind this, in fact? It is true that younger scientists may have some of the best ideas, and the health to match that enthusiasm to make those projects come true, more than a tenured professor of 55-60, for example. Simply because biology is working in his/her favor with better health (in general). But, using a dangerous across-the-board generalization, an older, more seasoned professor would have in fact more years of experience in dealing with project processing, and getting ideas to give birth to the ultimate goal, namely publications or patents. So experience and age generally trump great ideas, unfortunately. Also because junior scientists would pass on their ideas to senior ones who would then apply for the funding. I don’t see how this hierarchical choice of “best candidate” for funding will change in many decades to come.

The curse of the doughnut is in place, and personally I don’t see that as a bad thing, even though I personally decided to buck the trend and stay in academia voluntarily, now for almost 10 years. That’s right, I am now 42, and decided that either I would stick out the grind and suffer, for free, without a salary but have the opportunity of doing what I love/loved, namely research, given laboratory facilities to make my dreams come true, or pull out of science, like PHILLPJONES, a commentator above, did. It is these tough choices, from the silent majority, that remain unheard. It is a terrible time for young scientists, it is true, because initiative and imagination have to be superior to current job opportunities. In the plant sciences, I estimate that the number of positions available relative to the number of graduating students must be well in excess of 10:1 (a wild ball-park figure based on personal observations). Ad even those who manage to get a position after graduation often might have to sit at the bottom of the feeding chain for a decade or even more before an older professor dies or retires (sorry about the raw reality, but that’s just the way it is), and an opening appears. So, times are tough, although I have seen some case studies where funding is ample and the number of positions offered in some mega-labs appears endless. So, not only is there serious bias and rank-and-file associated with funding, the very structure of academia, in academic and research institutes, right up to ministries of education, demands that this structure stay intact.

I have one objection in this story which could cost me many thumbs down, or maybe even not have my comment posted, but it needs to be heard because we are the scientists. So, it is extremely irritating when politicians come forward in a clear attempt to try and score positive political points for themselves or for their campaigns, thinking that they are being pro-active in the name of young scientists. The battle was in place long before Andy Harris came along, and will be in place long after his strangely coincidental date of 2025, which would give him almost 9 years to get campaign funding and voter support for another two political terms. Sorry to say this, but I wish politicians would stay out of science: their voices add noise to an already noisy battle field. Unfortunately, we cannot silence their voices because federal funding comes from the government, so politicians think that this gives them a higher voice of reason to make impassioned calls for more funding to younger scientists. Let me make a suggestion, rather than allowing politicians to make the calls, call on young scientists to offer their voices of discontent, to get a real picture of the situation. Rather than trying to steal the limelight, Dr. Harris, why not get the voices of the thousands of young Maryland scientists who come out of university with a bleak research and job future awaiting them. Hey, if you are so altruistic, why not donate 10% of your personal salary to support research projects developed by “young” scientists that you think are more deserving than those that are attracting funding by “older” scientists? I can tell you now, as a young scientist who got only sporadic funding, miraculously, over the past 10 years, that some 1000 US$ donations from over-paid scientists would have been much more useful that their ego-centric pieces in the New York Times. This principle applies to irritated scientists across the globe, of course, not just to Dr. Harris. As the Anglo-Saxonics would so eloquently say, “Put your money where your mouth is.”

Another issue that is being overlooked are the drifters of the academic population, that are willing to sacrifice being sedentary, to get a good salary and a good position. I am referring to the post-docs, who drift about, often in spurts of 1-3 years, float from lab to lab, and also often from country to country, in search of security, academic and financial. I noticed that the ScholarlyKitchen discussed the issue and lost or hidden potential of post-docs elsewhere, so I will not expand on the ideas here.

Finally, the spanner in the works, which may actually disprove everything I have said above, and everything that is being so heatedly discussed in this story: retractions. If we observe sites like Retraction Watch, that document the increasing number of retractions, what really stands out very often is the lack of laboratory and research oversight, which is often attributed to the senior PI, or the professor who is meant to be overseeing the lab. In some cases, of course, it is a student or a post-doc that has been careless, or dishonest, but ultimately, it is the senior PI or professor who has the ultimate authority to make sure that the lab works optimally, and that papers that emerge from his/her laboratory are free of errors. After all, that senior PI or professor get a substantial salary and research grants precisely to ensure that quality control. So, when we see a retraction of a paper and see the link between high salary and generous research funding given to the PI and/or professor of that laboratory, then indeed, it is time to question whether the title of this story “Old and stale” may be in fact true. Ultimately, a retraction not only represents a bruise to the image of that professor and his team, who may suffer professionally with this “black mark”, but so too does the image of that university and nation suffer. A negative image of any of these entities will undoubtedly decrease the chance of obtaining research funding, at any age.

So, my plea to those in positions of power superior to science itself, is that these small pockets of variables not be observed in isolation, rather that they be seen in a more global context, affected by culture, and affected by the power of politics and economy.

My apologies for the long comment.

While I share the congressman’s concern about the challenges faced by young researchers, it is an oversimplification to state that “More funding seems to make things worse.” The average age of first time R01 recipients was already steadily rising for at least two decades prior to the doubling of the NIH budget from 1998-2003 (source: FASEB). As Michael White and others have noted, the principal problem with the NIH budget doubling was the failure to sustain it (http://www.psmag.com/navigation/health-and-behavior/unintentionally-defunded-national-institutes-health-70470/). This resulted in an expansion of the workforce followed by an intensification of competition for funding, with a predictable adverse impact on success rates for young investigators. Funding levels are now far lower than if the pre-1998 historical trend had simply continued. More funding will not solve all of the problems with science and the graying of the scientific workforce but it is going to be an essential part of any effective solution. It is a fantasy to think that the problem can be solved simply by imposing quotas based on age.

I would also add the ages of researchers making Nobel-worthy discoveries are not the only evidence that scientists tend to be most productive in their 30s. Falagas, et al. found that publication productivity also peaks in the fourth decade of life (FASEB J 22:4067-70, 2008). I make this observation with some reluctance, as I am long past that window. This is not to overlook the fact that some landmark discoveries are still made by older scientists, and that older scientists make important contributions to the research enterprise that are not necessarily reflected in publications and prizes.

“The lack over the past 20 years of blockbuster new drugs and devices seems to corroborate these concerns in biomedicine.”

Perhaps that reflects the majority proportion of stale, re-hased research ideas that the older PIs are being funded for. Time for an injection of fresh blood?

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