As the U.S. scientific workforce ages, the younger generation faces the implications

Scientists in the United States are graying. Between 1993 and 2010, the age of the average researcher in industry and academia rose from 45.1 to 46.8, thanks especially to a sizable increase in the number over 55. That’s according to a new analysis of the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Doctorate Recipients, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And one of the concerns raised by the study—which takes an unusually broad view in addressing a trend that has been highlighted for years by research on everyone from federal STEM employees to life sciences researchers—is whether increasingly older researchers are crowding out younger ones when competing for limited resources.

Much of the observed aging seems to stem from late-career baby boomers, who are pushing the workforce at large to grow older. But scientists are getting older even faster than their educated peers in other fields, in large part due to the 1994 decision to get rid of mandatory retirement at age 70 for universities, the study suggests. And if factors including the age at which scientists retire and the Ph.D. completion rate remain the same, the research predicts that this overall aging trend will continue for decades to come. “We’re on our way to even older status quo,” says co-author Bruce Weinberg, an economist at The Ohio State University in Columbus.

Weinberg believes that there is cause for concern. “It’s likely that the growing stock of more senior people is limiting to some extent opportunities for more junior people, both in terms of tenure-track positions and research funding,” he says. But others have questions. Lindsay Lowell, a demographer at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., says that the data is a little fuzzy about what roles older researchers play—some are emeritus, for instance, and probably not very active in research—as well as the impact of young scientists immigrating from other countries, a group that is notoriously difficult to track.

Beyond this study, National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding trends highlight the competition that younger researchers face from their more experienced colleagues. During the 1990s, the percentage of researchers under 45 that NIH funded fell steadily, while those older than 45 had increasing grant application success. Efforts to reverse this trend have had mixed results. In 2007, for example, NIH adopted new policies that succeeded in closing the gap between biomedical researchers in their 30s who were applying for their first grant and older researchers. But young investigators trying to renew their grants still face worse odds of getting funded than do their older colleagues.

Christopher Pickett, director of Rescuing Biomedical Research, cautions that this disparity is unhealthy for the scientific enterprise, which requires support for researchers at every career stage. “We don’t want this to be a game of whack-a-mole where we help young researchers but hurt middle-career researchers,” Pickett says. “We have to think about what happens once the baby boom generation retires, whether they will leave a vacuum in the system in a few decades.”

Few argue that mandatory retirement should be brought back. Two years ago, NIH did propose an emeritus award to help a researcher close her lab or hand it over to a younger researcher. But this idea brewed up a storm; to some, it was merely a mechanism for channeling more money to older researchers.

There’s no doubt that plenty of young people are eager to pursue careers in science. The numbers earning Ph.D.s and pursuing postdoctoral positions has been increasing in dramatic fashion in some fields, including biomedicine. But Gary McDowell, executive director of Future of Research, wonders whether science will have room for them. “You can’t have a system in which you have lots of trainees but retain the older investigators too,” he says. “That’s not sustainable without increased funding.” And if the president’s budget is any indication, increased funding in the next 4 years seems unlikely.

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