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NIH-funded researchers past retirement age now outnumber those under 36.

NIH-funded researchers past retirement age now outnumber those under 36.

National Institutes of Health

Updated: Fountain of youth: A congressman's plan to make NIH grantees younger

A member of Congress has waded into the thorny issue of the graying of U.S. biomedical researchers with a radical solution: He wants to order the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to bring down the average age at which new investigators receive their first grant by 4 years within a decade. Not surprisingly, the idea is getting a rocky reception from biomedical research advocates.

As a physician-researcher before he went into politics, “I saw firsthand how the most innovative thinking frequently came from younger scientists,” writes Representative Andy Harris (R–MD) today in an op-ed in The New York Times. He cites the well-worn statistic that the median age at which a Ph.D. researcher receives his or her first NIH R01, the agency’s bread-and-butter research grant, is now 42 (up from 36 on average in 1980). NIH is “aware” of the problem but “does not have a serious plan to fix it,” argues Harris, a former anesthesiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Indeed, the issue is not new: For years, the community has lamented the rising age of first-time investigators, which many attribute to ever-longer graduate studies and postdocs and a dearth of new faculty positions. Worried about losing NIH’s “seed corn,” in 2008 then–NIH Director Elias Zerhouni crafted a policy ensuring that these new investigators—and in particular “early stage investigators,” defined as those no more than 10 years out from finishing their Ph.D. or residency—have the same success rate as established investigators submitting a new grant. Many NIH institutes achieve this by setting a higher “payline,” or quality cutoff score, for grants from the new applicants. The policy and small programs aimed at young investigators have stabilized the average age for the first R01 grant for Ph.D. researchers at 42, but haven’t reduced it.

National Institutes of Health

Harris thinks that is not enough. He cites a study finding that most winners of the Nobel Prize and other leading scientists were between 35 and 39 when they came up with their breakthrough ideas. Simply giving NIH more money won’t help, he argues: The portion of NIH grants going to young scientists dropped even during the 1999 to 2003 doubling of the NIH budget and also didn’t increase despite the burst of funding NIH received from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Harris’s solution is simple. A draft bill his staff shared with ScienceInsider states that the NIH director “shall ensure” that the median age of first-time investigators receiving their first R grant (which include R01s and other research grants) comes down to under 40 by 2019; under 39 by 2022; and under 38 by 2025.

The money to do this would not come from funding for existing grants. Instead, it would come from a pool of about $700 million (in 2013)—known as the tap—that NIH must hand over annually to its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, for other activities and agencies. A separate draft bill would redirect this funding to the NIH director’s office, to be used for “emerging scientists.” The bill defines emerging scientists as those 15 years out from finishing their training and seeking their first or second research grant.

Harris hopes the two bills will become part of legislation that emerges from a bipartisan effort in the U.S. House of Representatives—known as 21st Century Cures—to provide more funding for NIH and speed drug development and approvals.

Several biomedical research leaders who have seen the draft bills say that although they share Harris’s concerns about young scientists, they are wary of what they describe as congressional “micromanaging.” Jeremy Berg of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, who is a former director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), says Harris’s plan oversimplifies the problem. For example, “new investigators” at NIH can include seasoned scientists coming to NIH after being funded by other sources. (After subtracting these investigators, the average age at which an early-stage investigator receives their first grant is now 39, according to NIH extramural research chief Sally Rockey.)

Furthermore, Berg has dug into NIGMS funding data and found that new faculty tend to rely on startup funds from universities to run their labs and wait 3 or 4 years to apply for an R01, perhaps so they have a better shot at funding. “You really need to look at what’s driving the numbers and understand the whole system before doing things that might be harmful in the long run,” he says.

Howard Garrison, deputy executive director for policy for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland, says he, too, is “not enthusiastic” about further propping up success rates for new investigators instead of relying on peer review to decide which grants to fund. “Mandating NIH to come up with a specific outcome is a dangerous and risky position to take given the complexity of the situation,” Garrison says.


Asked for a response to Harris’s proposal, Rockey, NIH's deputy director for extramural research, said that the problem is not so much funding more young investigators, but moving scientists through training more quickly. “Individuals achieve status as independent new investigators at a much later age than what we saw in the 80s and 90s, meaning they generally are not a position to compete for their first NIH award until around the age of 40,” she said in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. Her full response is below:

While representative Harris correctly points out that a smaller proportion of NIH funds goes to investigators under the age of 36, it is not due to a lack of NIH investment in new investigators (defined as those who have never before served as principal investigator on an NIH grant).  On the contrary, over the past five years, the proportion of new investigators is higher than it has been in  25 years.  NIH embarked seven years ago on a concerted and successful effort to bolster the number of awards made to new investigators and has continued to be vigilant in keeping the plight of new investigators at the forefront of its activities.   But even with these efforts, NIH has seen the average age of new investigators drop only slightly, hovering around 42 for the past 15 years. 

The reduction in the proportion of individuals under the age of 36 receiving NIH awards is due primarily to the demographics of the biomedical workforce as we know it today.  Individuals achieve status as independent new investigators at a much later age than what we saw in the 80s and 90s, meaning they generally are not a position to compete for their first NIH award until around the age of 40.  This change has come about due to many young people waiting to embark on graduate training until their mid-20s, and spending, on average, at least 7 years in Ph.D. training and six years as a postdoc.  So lowering the age at which researchers receive their first NIH award is largely going to hinge on shortening the time spent in training and not simply by supporting more new investigators.  The solution is highly complex and is dependent on the economy, the availability of independent research positions, retirement rates, the overall health of the academic and private sector environment, the quantity of researchers coming to the U.S. from other countries, the number of people trained, and the strength of the training received by the students to make them as competitive as possible for research positions.   To try to address this significant issue, NIH has developed a number of interventions such as the BEST program, Early Independence Awards, Pathway to Independence Awards, and others, and is engaging the community in seeking ways to get young and talented research to independence as quickly as possible. 

*Update, 6 October, 2:58 p.m.: This item was updated to include a response from Sally Rockey, NIH's extramural research chief.

*Correction, 7 October, 3:58 p.m.: A statement about the rise in average (or median) age at which a Ph.D. researcher receives an initial R01 has been corrected.