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Younger researchers win NIH grants at rates similar to their elders

Younger biomedical researchers—those between 35 and 39—are about as likely to win funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as their elders, according to a study published earlier this month in Cell Stem Cell. This finding seems to upend the widespread impression that older scientists have higher success rates than their juniors in the competition for grants. “After years of puzzling over how its grant-review process might be shortchanging younger scientists, the National Institutes of Health appears to have figured out a more fundamental truth: There just aren’t enough of them applying,” reporter Paul Basken writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“For NIH overall, funding rates were relatively similar among age groups” from 1980 to 2014, write study authors Misty L. Heggeness of the U.S. Census Bureau, Frances Carter-Johnson of the National Science Foundation, Walter T. Schaffer of NIH, and Sally J. Rockey of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (formerly of NIH) in the paper. “[O]lder scientists absorb a disproportionate share of NIH money largely because there are more of them, and they are more likely to seek money,” Basken notes in the Chronicle article.

In 2014, for example, according to data in the article, stem cell researchers between 35 and 39 were successful more often than any other age group, winning grants 21.6% of the time, as compared to success rates ranging from 18.3% for those between 40 and 44 to 13.4% for those in the 55 to 59 age group. Counting researchers in all fields, those between 35 and 39 won grants 24.8% of the time, compared to 23.6% for those 40 to 44 and 22.9% for those 45 to 49. The most successful age group overall was 60 to 64, with a 25.1% funding rate—just a small increase over the 35 to 39 group.

Of course, there was a time when 35 to 39 hardly counted as young in the scientific world. Four or five decades ago, scientists had their own labs in their late 20s or early 30s. Some years ago, molecular biologist Maxine Singer told me of heading her own lab at NIH in the late 1950s while still in her 20s, which was not at all unusual in those days (though a woman doing so probably was). A number of researchers—Albert Einstein, Marshall Nirenberg, and Thomas Cech, for example—won Nobel Prizes when they were in their early 40s. In 2005, when the median age of first-time winners of competitive NIH grants was 42, then-NIH director Elias Zerhouni pointed out that “[i]n today's world, Marshall Nirenberg would get his Nobel Prize before he got his first NIH grant.”

The reason for what the study calls “the collective aging of the NIH-funded independent investigator workforce” is very likely the overproduction of Ph.D.s relative to available openings for faculty positions, which has prevented thousands of able young scientists from launching careers as independent investigators. The study authors express concern that the aging of NIH grant recipients could create challenges in maintaining the size of the workforce as current participants retire. “[I]f all independent investigators aged 65 plus were to retire tomorrow,” the authors write, “NIH would need to increase its workforce under age 65 by 10% in order to maintain the same number and level of research it currently funds today.” But, as study co-author Schaffer, quoted by Basken, observes, “there is no evidence that there is a shortage of young, well-trained biomedical researchers to take their place on faculties in schools of higher education or as principal investigators on NIH research grants.”

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