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NIH

Published On June 13, 2017

POLICY

A Lost Generation

A low ebb in funding for young scientists resists easy answers.

Young researchers in the field of medicine have an increasingly hard time getting funded. In 1980, 16% of investigators who received grants from the National Institutes of Health were 36 or younger. By 2014, that number had dropped to 3%. While the ranks of postdoctoral fellows in the United States swelled 150% between 2000 and 2012, they’re competing for a pot of NIH funding that, when adjusted for inflation, has shrunk. And waiting their turn in the safe halls of academia is rarely an option, since only about 8% of researchers who complete their Ph.D. and postdoctoral work land a tenure-track academic position.

The 21st Century Cures Act, signed into law last December, took aim at the problem. It includes a Next Generation Researchers Initiative, which calls for a panel to look at both new solutions and options raised by previous reports. “We want to be sure our findings don’t just sit on a shelf,” says Lida Beninson, study director for the NGRI. The panel expects to issue its report in March 2018, and is accepting public comments.  

NIH is also taking steps to head off a lost generation. Michael Lauer, director of the NIH Office of Extramural Research, which manages funding for biomedical studies, notes the steps that the agency has taken in recent years. New grants exclusively for young and early-career investigators were created in 2007 and 2009, and centers within NIH have been encouraged to approve as many grant applications from young investigators as from established scientists. These efforts, says Lauer, have helped make up for a steady decline in awards to this group that began in 1990. In May, it also instituted a new points-based system that will cap its funds to  individual investigators, allowing it to distribute an estimated 1,600 new grants, a move designed to help young researchers.

But solutions for one problem may be creating others. A paper published last December in PLoS ONE detailed a recent downtrend in funding for mid-career researchers from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Older, established researchers frequently complain to Lauer that shifting money to young scientists harms them. “We have a fixed budget,” says Lauer. “If we increase funding for one group of investigators, it means we need to decrease funding for another group.”

Christin Glorioso is a neuroscience postdoctoral fellow at MIT and the co-founder and co-president of Academics for the Future of Science, an organization that champions early-career investigators. He argues that a broad solution is needed: more government funding for research and development across all disciplines and age groups. Among other initiatives, AFS is encouraging young scientists to contact Congress through the group’s website to argue that increasing the government’s budget can thwart a looming risk. “If you lose all those early-career scientists,” says Glorioso, “you’re losing a whole generation of science.”