Freezing Out Young Scientists

Paper finds that young researchers are increasingly denied grant opportunities, limiting their career development and pushing some out of biomedical research. 

January 7, 2015

Ten years ago, a report from a National Academy of Sciences committee sounded an alarm about the barriers that young biomedical scientists face in launching their research careers. If improvements aren’t made, the report warned, there could be dire consequences to the future of biomedical research in the U.S.

Since then, the situation has only grown worse, as the share of research money going to young scientists has continued to decline, according to a paper by Johns Hopkins University President Ronald Daniels. The paper was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The implications of these data for our young scientists are arresting,” Daniels writes. “Without their own funding, young researchers are prevented from starting their own laboratories, pursuing their own research, and advancing their own careers in academic science.”

As a result, many young scientists are leaving academic research in favor of industry jobs or jobs outside of science. That’s problematic for a variety of reasons, including fewer future mentors and discoveries. But it’s especially concerning, Daniels said, because there’s a proven link between youth and major scientific breakthroughs.

"Young investigators through history have been the font of some of our most trailblazing scientific discoveries, but our current funding system is leaning away from them," Daniels said in an email.

He found the average age at which a researcher with a medical degree receives his or her first major grant from the National Institutes of Health has increased from less than 38 years old in 1980 to more than 45 years old in 2013. Likewise, only 3 percent of the principal researchers for such grants were under 36 in 2010, compared with 18 percent who were under 36 in 1983.

While there’s no simple or single driver of the shift of funding away from young scientists, Daniels describes three possible causes.

The data Daniels looked at from the NIH's biomedical workforce report show that the age at which scientists receive their final degree has remained fairly steady, but the age at which they receive their first faculty position has been climbing. That’s likely because of a longer period of time spent in postdoctoral training, according to the paper.

Grant allocation favors established scientists over those new to the field. For example, grants are awarded based on an extensive application process and the demonstration of preliminary data. But young scientists may lack the experience to fill out complex applications, and often can’t collect data ahead of time, since they have no funding. The model of peer review also favors more established scientists. 

Scientists 45 years old or younger had a lower rate of success in grant applications than did established scientists in 20 of the past 21 years, according to Daniels's research. At 3 percent or less, the gaps in success rates were small. But if the rates of the two age groups had been identical, Daniels says that would have yielded almost 1,000 more research grants for younger scientists in the past 10 years.

A final driver of the lesser number of grants going to young researchers is the shifting of research costs to universities. The NIH and universities share the costs of sponsoring research, and the portion of research funding that universities cover has risen in the past few decades, from 8.7 percent in 1962 to 19.4 percent in 2012, according to the paper. Universities spend more than $12 billion of their own money on research, an amount that more than doubled in the last 12 years.  

There are many reasons for that growth, and reasons why it’s unsustainable, according to the paper. As a result, universities may choose not to recruit young, unproven scientists who don’t have as secure a funding stream as do more established researchers.

To turn the situation around, Daniels calls for, among other things, reinvesting in scientific research while building more sustainable career paths for young biomedical scientists.  

The NIH has lost more than 20 percent of its purchasing power since 2003, and in that period, the success rate for grants was nearly cut in half, from 30 percent to 15 percent. For young scientists, that means that not only are their chances for individual funding diminished, but older scientists also are likely cutting positions on their research teams.

To support scientists throughout their careers, Daniels suggests that grants applications shift from focusing on a single research idea to emphasizing the potential of the researcher. Grant periods could then be extended to several years, meaning researchers would spent less time filling out applications and more time actually researching.

As Daniels writes in the beginning of his paper, the challenges facing young scientists aren't new, and concern about the effects of such challenges has persisted, despite being recognized years ago. 

That’s partially because ideas to expand programs for young scientists have languished amid budget constraints. Attempts to find solutions have gotten stuck because of a lack of reliable data.

If the U.S. is serious about investing in its young scientists, those type of single-party solutions won't work. Instead, Daniels recommends a standing committee to keep tabs on the issue and the effectiveness of efforts to improve. "The inability to staunch -- if not reverse -- the above trends stands as an urgent and compelling policy challenge."


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