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NIH proposal to create grant for aging scientists hits a nerve

NIH proposal to create grant for aging scientists hits a nerve

A seemingly innocuous idea from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for nudging aging scientists to retire is being blasted in the blogosphere. NIH’s proposal—an “emeritus” award that senior scientists would use to pass their work on to younger colleagues and wind down their labs—is unnecessary and could take funding away from younger and midcareer scientists, many commenters argued. A few, however, see it as a reasonable idea.

NIH has been worried for years now about the aging of the pool of investigators it funds—the portion over 65 is now 7%, more than those under 35 (see graph). In a 3 February post on her Rock Talk blog, NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Sally Rockey explains that while NIH has programs aimed at helping young investigators, “[w]e want to explore how we can help senior investigators who wish to transition out of a position that relies on funding from NIH research grants, and facilitate the transfer of their work, knowledge and resources to junior colleagues." The “emeritus award” would “permit a senior investigator to form a partnership with a junior faculty member in order to hand off his or her line of research inquiry in an efficient and cost-effective way,” according to a notice seeking comments. Or it could be used to close down a lab, the notice says.

So far, most of the more than 120 comments responding Rockey’s blog item and those on other blogs (see DrugMonkey, Data Hound) are critical. A sampling from Rock Talk:

Joseph Cantor on 5 February 2015 at 2:33 p.m. said:

This has the potential to become another cash source for basically semi-retired PI’s who are waiting a few more years for pension and retirement to accumulate.

Cynthia Wolberger on 4 February 2015 at 8:58 p.m. said:

This sounds like a well-intended but poorly thought-out attempt to get more aging scientists to close their labs and free up money for younger investigators. The NIH already has a mechanism to “facilitate laboratory closure,” namely not renewing a grant. … I don’t see how the NIH could craft a grant program aimed just at senior citizens or have the legal standing to bar recipients of an “emeritus award” from obtaining funding in the future.

Ellen Vitetta on 4 February 2015 at 9:09 p.m. said:

Not everyone wants to retire. Not everyone becomes non- productive on his/her 65th birthday !

But a few scientists voiced support:

Thomas Hughes on 4 February 2015 at 9:05 p.m. said:

What if you offered senior PIs 75K a year for 5 years IF they would not apply for any more grants during or after the award? AND the only eligible PIs would be those already NIH funded. Old guys like me would love a chance to slow down, work on just one project, and get our last people out the door.

Richard Weinberg on 5 February 2015 at 8:56 a.m. said:

It’s not uncommon to see a very effective lab led by someone almost ready to step down. At present no obvious mechanisms are available to achieve a smooth transition. … [T]his sort of program could add an uncharacteristic level of humane graciousness to a fundamentally cruel system.

Midcareer hoping for early retirement on 5 February 2015 at 3:02 p.m. said:

I took this idea as a way to gently, legally ease senior folks into taking retirement.

Jeremy Berg, former director of the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the voice behind Data Hound, commented on Rockey’s blog that he too worries about “an entitlement for senior investigators.” He argued that it’s already possible for an older investigator to transfer their grant to a younger colleague, and it’s the role of institutions, not NIH to encourage such transitions. “There is absolutely no need to create a new mechanism,” wrote Berg, who is now at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.

Berg told ScienceInsider that although encouraging senior scientists to retire “is a reasonable thing to do, I don’t think this is the right way to do it.” He thinks an emeritus award will inevitably lead aging scientists to keep their labs open longer than they otherwise would. “I’m skeptical that it would have the desired impact.”

Yvette Seger, director of science policy at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland, which recently released a report endorsing the idea of a “transition award for senior investigators” to free up grant funding for younger researchers, thinks part of problem may be the connotations of the word “emeritus.” That sounds like “a forced retirement,” Seger says; perhaps it should simply be described as an award for established investigators who want to move out of research.

NIH’s Rockey said she’s not surprised by the negative responses. “In tight budget times, any proposed new award creates angst that it will have an impact on the rest of the pool” of investigators seeking grants. She adds that nothing has been decided: The notice “was truly to get an idea of the temper of the community.” She encourages scientists to submit formal comments to the request for information on questions such as how the award could be used and how many years of support it should cover.