Bridges to Nowhere?

Science's Next Wave was founded on the idea that the interests of early-career scientists are not always identical to the interests of their more established colleagues. Over the years, it has dawned on us that the interests of science itself--and of the society that it serves--are often in closer alignment with the interests of young scientists than they are with the scientific establishment. Yet that establishment--senior scientists, university administrators, and government policy makers, many of whom care deeply about science's future--has a momentum that's very difficult to overcome.

Nearly a decade after Next Wave's formation, a report from the Life Sciences Advisory Board of the National Research Council (NRC) now validates Next Wave's longstanding view that the status quo puts the interests of young scientists at risk. The report lays out some grim facts and presents a range of specific policy proposals for NIH, for whom the report was written.

The goal of all these proposals is to get the best young biomedical scientists into their own independent, well-funded laboratories earlier in their careers, so that they don't waste their most productive and creative years in a supporting role, pursuing other people's research ideas.

Some of the report's recommendations have been proposed and even tried before. Others are new and quite bold. Overall, it's a package that, if fully implemented, would be likely to have a strong positive overall effect on biomedical science community in the U.S. as well as the careers of young biomedical scientists.

But even when NIH budgets were increasing at a 15% annual clip, almost all the new money ended up supporting the research of established scientists. What hope is there that, during a time of flat budgets, NIH will manage to implement new policies that, if they work as intended, will result in the transfer of research support away from established scientists and toward their younger colleagues? Full implementation of the recommendations of the NRC comittee--even substantial partial implementation--seems unlikely.

The Problem

The funded part of the biomedical science workforce is getting older, while the younger part of it struggles for years in postdocs and other temporary positions.

  • The median age of the first independent position in biomedical science is 36, which is very old for an early career scientist.
  • The median age at which a biomedical researcher wins her first research grant is 42, which means that a full 6 years elapse between the first appointment and the first full grant.
  • Only 4% of NIH grants go to first-time grant recipients.
  • Increasingly, academic science is being done by scientists in non-permanent, soft money-supported positions.

Taken together, these facts paint an ominous picture for prospective and early career scientists.

The picture is even scarier for U.S. science in general, and for precisely the same reasons. As the delay before scientific independence grows longer, more talented young people--including future scientific pioneers--will begin to choose other fields. America will lose more of its already dwindling scientific edge, one of the major pillars on which America's wealth and military security rests.

Even now, scientists are spending the years at which they are (as evidence suggests) likely to be at their most daring and creative, pursuing other people's ideas. Furthermore, the extremely competitive nature of the job, and of research funding once they have the job, may be forcing early career scientists to play it safe, choosing research projects with a surer, shorter-term payoff instead of daring projects that may not pay off big in the longer term.

The Solution

NRC's most interesting proposals focus, in effect, on redistribution: changing the rules so that younger scientists get more funding for independent research and advanced training. Here's an overview of some of these more interesting proposals:

  • For scientists who already have an independent position, the report recommends creating new types of awards that would be available only to those who haven't previously received major NIH funding. Proposals for these awards would be evaluated by regular study sections but would not be forced to compete with established investigators. For these new awards, the preliminary data requirement would be replaced by a discussion of previous experience. Unlike the First Independent Research Support and Transition (FIRST) award program that was eliminated several years ago--which was damned (toward the end of its life) by small budgets, these awards would be well funded. Among its many advantages, a program like this would allow the NIH leadership (and the leadership of NIH's institutes and centers) to earmark a certain portion of the research budget for new investigators, instead of leaving those decisions to study sections that are principally focused on scientific merit.
  • For postdocs ready to establish their own lab, the report proposes an idea that we at Next Wave have advocated for years: The creation of larger, more numerous, and more standardized training awards, modeled on some of NIH's "K-22" awards and--more closely--on the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Awards. These awards would (in the form proposed) provide $500,000, including money for salary and research support, bridging the postdoc and the early faculty periods. The report proposes the creation of 200 of these awards each year. Once again, a program like this would allow the leadership to set aside money for early career scientists, and the amount of money involved is sufficient to nearly assure the winners of a permanent position. Think of it as $100 million in seed money invested in America's scientific future.
  • For postdocs supported by research grants, the report proposes reallocating resources from the Research Project Grant Program, or R01 grants, that currently support them to training awards and other forms of independent support.

The Problem with the Solution

The late classical pianist Rosalyn Tureck once was told by a teacher, when she was still quite young, "it's a superb conception; unfortunately, it's impossible." A cynic might say the same about the NRC panel's current proposals. What the more interesting proposals have in common is that they require the direct transfer of resources from established investigators to scientists who are still trying to get established. If history shows anything, it's that taking money away from people who have it and giving it to people who don't is a very difficult thing to do, whether it's scientists or serfs, postdocs or the poor.

Accomplishing this to a meaningful extent will require an extraordinary commitment by the NIH leadership, and extraordinary vision and selflessness from established scientists who will need to set aside their own scientific agendas, and support proposals that are essential to the long-term well being of American scientists. Unless this happens, this will be just another (quasi-) governmental report, languishing on a shelf collecting dust.

Does the Will Exist?

Some of these proposals have been around for quite a while. Yet so far not one meaningful reform has been adopted. What reason is there, then, to think that things will be different this time?

Senior scientists working away in their labs, applying for new research grants, writing new papers, hiring new postdocs, remain as oblivious as ever, and as unlikely to note the problems faced by today's young scientists. Yet, among the leadership of the biomedical research community, things may indeed be changing. I asked several people in NIH's leadership to comment on the report's recommendations, and on their chance of being adopted. All agreed--some anonymously--that things are likely to be different this time. "I feel strongly," said one NIH insider who asked not to be identified but insisted that his view was shared by other senior administrators, "that science is a young person's game. I think this time we will do something."

Senior Advisor to the Director of NIH Ruth Kirschstein--herself a former Acting Director---was the only one to speak to me on record. Kirschstein, for whom NIH's postdoc and graduate fellowships are named, acknowledges the difficulty of the task, but believes that the will exists within NIH to make at least some of the necessary hard decisions. The issue of young scientists, she says, "is the highest priority. It is for me, and it is for most people at NIH." While acknowledging that NIH had not yet had time to study the report and decide on a course of action, Kirschstein insisted that "the will is there to assure that younger investigators will have the ability to develop their careers.?

Sometimes institutions--even ones that are large and hard to steer--will surprise you. Sometimes, when you've nearly given up hope, fundamental changes will occur. Will that happen now? "Some hard choices will be required," Kirschstein said. "NIH is prepared to make those hard choices."

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers