Science at risk as young researchers increasingly denied research grants

January 7, 2015
Ronald J. Daniels

America's youngest scientists, increasingly losing research dollars, are leaving the academic biomedical workforce, a brain drain that poses grave risks for the future of science, according to an article published this week by Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels.

The article, which appears in the online Early Edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, illustrates how for more than a generation, grants for have declined.

The proportion of principal investigators with a leading National Institutes of Health grant who are 36 years old or younger dropped from 18 percent in 1983 to 3 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, the average age when a scientist with a medical degree gets her first of these grants has risen from just under 38 years old in 1980 to more than 45 in 2013.

"The implications of these data for our young scientists are arresting," Daniels writes in the PNAS paper. "Without their own funding, young researchers are prevented from starting their own laboratories, pursuing their own research, and advancing their own careers in . It is not surprising that many of our youngest minds are choosing to leave their positions."

If young talent continues to leave academia, Daniels says it could lead to a gradual evaporation of new discoveries, the loss of future leaders and mentors, a less diverse workforce and the loss of scientists at what should be a pivotal point in their career.

Daniels points to three reasons for the decline in for young scientists—longer training periods, a grant system that may favor incumbents and an increase in the cost of research that is borne by universities, causing some institutions to shy away from unproven researchers in favor of scientists with established funding streams.

"The inability to staunch—if not reverse—the above trends stands as an urgent and compelling policy challenge," Daniels says. "The current stewards of the U.S. research enterprise bear a responsibility to sustain and safeguard that enterprise so that it can provide a platform for the scientists and the science of generations to come."

Daniels proposes several policy reforms to better support young scientists including more robust funding for the NIH—with more of that money dedicated to new talent—and refining the peer review model to create a more accepting environment for inexperienced scientists and daring proposals. He also suggests creation of a standing body to undertake a continuing review of the issue, assess the effectiveness of any interventions and press stakeholders—Congress, the NIH, federal agencies, universities and private industry—into action.

"Other countries are marshaling the will and resources to invest in the next generation of young scientists," Daniels says. "A comparable solution in the United States will require a comparable commitment on the part of all actors in the biomedical science ecosystem. ... Our next generation of scientists, and indeed our next generation of science, demands nothing less."

Explore further: Young scientists must be seen and heard

More information: A generation at risk: Young investigators and the future of the biomedical workforce, PNAS, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1418761112

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tejolson
1.2 / 5 (5) Jan 07, 2015
I don't see how anyone could justify giving money to a researcher that's been in the field for 30 or so years and done absolutely nothing over another researcher that is new and also done nothing. It might seem like they done something, they might have 50 papers that said they did something, but in reality they've done nothing. Can't change a dinosaur that can't evolve, but there is always hope that someone young can learn something. And btw, most of these "researchers" have done absolutely nothing and most young researchers will also likely do absolutely nothing. I'm not worried about the future of science. I look at the black and white MIT videos and everything they said over 50 years ago is still just as valid today as it was then. We really haven't gone very far.
Uncle Ira
3.7 / 5 (6) Jan 07, 2015
If they don't have enough money for giving everybody all the money they want I suppose they do what not-the-scientist-people do. Try to bet on how to get the most back from the money you spend. The old-scientist-Skippys have better shops to do their researching, better more tricks of the trade and so they can probably get more back than the young-new-scientist-Skippys can.

Well that sounds silly, eh? I know what I am trying to say even if I don't know what to say about it. I wish I could bad karma vote me for that such foolishment.
Durand
4.5 / 5 (2) Jan 07, 2015
This data is not compelling. Some figures have dropped over a 30 year timescale, but how does this reflect the fact that in this time period youth have flocked to the academic community as a safe haven for job security, hugely diluting the talent pool. Would one expect more "youth" applying for grants would result in more youth receiving grants? Is the steady rise in the average age of primary researchers receiving grants not an indication the the discipline is maturing? That it is stabilizing? Is this not a reflection of the fact that the average age of retirement from all fields has increased (often toward a point of no retirement), so that more and more experienced researchers remain in the running for grants longer than 40 years ago (when today's data is compared to)?

Before labelling this result as morally "bad" I think it is imperative to seek a broader picture of the contributing circumstances. I for one am not convinced.
dan42day
not rated yet Jan 07, 2015
I have to agree Durand in that it appears that the article is basing it's argument on two cherry picked statistics. A least show me graphical trends from say the 1950's on.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (3) Jan 08, 2015
I had to "5" Durand before I even finished reading his whole comment...
Way too many good points in a single comment (stretch it out over a few comments and you'll get more "5"s...:-)

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