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It's Past Time to Reform Science Funding

It's harder and harder for young scientists to get needed funding, and that could do harm to future U.S. science.
(Photo: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr)

(Photo: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr)

At first glance, a quick Web search for "young researchers grants" seems to turn up a lot of opportunities. Reality isn’t quite so kind. In the decade since the National Academy of Sciences reported on the alarming difficulty scientists were facing in setting their own research directions—and declared "the time for action is now"—it’s only gotten harder for scientific upstarts to nab major grants, according to a perspective by Johns Hopkins University President Ronald Daniels published Monday.

In the decade since the National Academy of Sciences reported on the alarming difficulty new scientists were facing in setting their own research directions—and declared "the time for action is now"—it’s only gotten harder for scientific upstarts to nab major grants.

Despite some positive moves by the National Institutes of Health, "the trajectory of our science funding away from young scientists has only continued," Daniels writes. The median age at which researchers with an M.D. got their first R01 grants, which award the most money and are widely considered to be a prerequisite for a successful career in natural science, rose from 38 to 42 between 1980 and 2013. Meanwhile, the equivalent age for a Ph.D. researcher rose from 36 to 42, from 1980 to 2011. In other words, it takes half a decade longer before biomedical scientists, at least, can get the funding they need to set up a lab and start their academic careers in earnest. Rather than bide time working in someone else's lab, many decide to pursue careers outside academia—for instance, in tech start-ups or science journalism.

Indeed, some have argued that postdoctoral fellowships—positions in another, established researcher's lab between grad school and one's first professorial job—are behind the rising age of the first R01. The idea is that, as science has grown, it takes longer to learn everything one needs to know in order to set up shop. But like most grad students and postdocs, Daniels suggests that's a spurious argument: Researchers aren't spending more time as postdocs to learn more, he writes. They're doing it because they can't get permanent jobs, without which it's virtually impossible to get precious R01 funding. In addition, grant reviews possess a well-known bias toward already established researchers, in part because it takes experience to navigate the arcane rules involved, but also because grant reviewers often favor established scientists they know over riskier newcomers.

Daniels offers a few solutions already familiar to academics—getting more money for NIH and other funding agencies to distribute, for example. But he also suggests reforming the grant review process so that more senior researchers are responsible for reviews—paradoxically, they're more likely than their younger colleagues to recommend funding riskier ideas from newcomer scientists. Similarly, funding agencies might change focus to support promising young scientists rather than a particular program of research, an approach the Canada Research Chairs program has tried with some success. A more radical proposal is to encourage young scientists to take support positions for other scientists, either as an at-large scientist working for several faculty members or as a senior scientist running one lab day to day.

Whatever the solution, Daniels writes, "targeted policy recommendations could have a profound impact on the trajectory of scientific research. Our next generation of scientists, and indeed our next generation of science, demands nothing less."