It’ll take more than tweaking NIH review to promote young scientists

The NY Times ran an op-ed by a Maryland Congressional representative arguing that younger biomedical investigators, who are at what should be the most creative time of their careers, are getting screwed in the current funding climate. He suggests that Congress should force the NIH to change this:

Congress should also mandate that the median age of first research awards to new investigators be under 40 within five years, and under 38 within 10 years. Failure to meet these benchmarks would result in penalties for the N.I.H., including possible funding cuts.

But people aren’t just getting funded later – it looks like they’re getting their first tenure-track jobs later as well. There are probably proportionally fewer younger investigators that the NIH could fund. The average age at which people get their first assistant professorships at U.S. medical schools appears to have climbed steadily, closely tracking the rise in age of investigators getting their first R01s. (There are some conflicting data; my guess is that it’s important to distinguish between first tenure-track job at any institution (NSF survey), and first tenure-track job at medical schools (AAMC data), where most people who apply for R01’s work.) This shouldn’t be surprising – competition for faculty jobs is growing, and as the economist Paula Stephan has argued, there is some evidence that those who go on to tenure track jobs do longer postdocs than those who don’t. This isn’t a problem that will be solved by forcing the NIH to fund more younger investigators.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

5 thoughts on “It’ll take more than tweaking NIH review to promote young scientists”

  1. I hope they don’t use that statistic (median age of first-time awardees); it would have the consequence of increasing the “fast track or no track” culture of government-funded research by excluding older researchers who have never had an NIH award. It will punish people who did not immediately attend grad school after undergrad or otherwise took longer to get into the NIH funding game (raising a family, disability, or conducting non-medical research).

    I suppose there could be some arguments for promoting a “fast track only” funding structure, but fairness is not one of them.

  2. As an alternative, I think the criterion should be something like:
    “10% of ALL awards should go to first time investigators under 40”

    1. I don’t think an age criterion should come into it at all – only whether someone is a ‘new investigator’, e.g. within x years of first tenure track job.

      The goal should be to ensure that people with new labs, regardless of how old they are, can successfully compete for grants, despite the inherent disadvantages of new labs in the review process – shorter pub. record, less data, etc. Not a fast track, but leveling a playing field that is inherently tilted against new labs – and that’s what existing NIH policies re. new investigators try to do.

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