It’s a situation leading many to opt for a career in industry instead, where advanced degrees are welcome and well-paid.
Advances in biomedical science, including the cure for diseases and other life-changing therapies, have depended on a steady supply of young researchers innovating during their most productive years.
Delaying or diminishing the number of these investigators will have untold impact on the future of medicine.
The culprit behind these stalled careers is the chronic underfunding of biomedical research.
While other countries have been pumping money into research programs, federal funding from the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s largest provider of funds for academic research, has been flat for 10 years.
In real terms, it means NIH dollars are shrinking and much less money is available to researchers in the form of grants. In fact, for every six applications made today, only one NIH grant is now awarded.
It’s a competitive environment that puts younger applicants at a distinct disadvantage compared to older, more seasoned scientists.
New university researchers simply have less data and experience to support their applications – no matter how promising their proposed research may be.
For those young university researchers who cannot get grants to run their own investigations, the options are limited. They must stay as post-doctoral fellows in the labs of senior scientists or hope that already fiscally-tapped universities can offer funds to keep them afloat while they re-apply for NIH grants. Neither is good for the future of biomedical research.
“We are throwing away probably half of the innovative, talented research proposal’s that the nation’s finest biomedical community has produced,” Dr. Francis Collins, head of NIH, told USA Today.
“Particularly for young scientists, they are now beginning to wonder if they are in the wrong field. We have a serious risk of losing the most important resource that we have, which is this brain trust, the talent and the creative energies of this generation of scientists.”
The problem will only worsen without leadership and action.
There are a few signs of progress on the horizon. Congress has recently turned its attention to the issue, with lawmakers unveiling a proposal in January that, among other directives, would require the NIH to set aside more money for envelope-pushing research and young, emerging scientists.
“If we want to achieve great things at the NIH, one of the things we have to do is empower younger investigators,” said Rep. Andy Harris (R), a Maryland congressman and Johns-Hopkins trained anesthesiologist.
The proposal comes on the heels of Congress’ 2015 budget appropriations to NIH, delivered with an accompanying report[nia.nih.gov] expressing “significant concerns” that the average age at which researchers obtain their first NIH grant, known as an RO1, is 42.
The report directs NIH to:
Analyze the success rates of young investigators applying for grants to consider whether they should compete against only other early stage investigators instead of all applicants.Develop a new approach with actionable steps to reduce the average age at which investigators first obtain R01 funding, and produce a report within 120 days.Ensure that all NIH Institutes or Centers continue to support the pathways to independence program, which provides new investigators with mentored grants that convert into independent research project grants.
In addition, Congress continues to support NIH programs such as new innovator awards, pioneer awards, and the transformative R01 program through the Common Fund.
In the meantime, young researchers are finding money where they can. Some hope to benefit from university funds such as Johns Hopkins University’s recent announcement of $15 million in awards, a portion of which has been earmarked for early-career scholars.
Others are turning to foundations, such as the Northern California Chapter of the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists Foundation, Inc., a national nonprofit which since 1958 has awarded nearly $90 million to some 9,000 researchers.
A few are even resorting to crowdsourcing via sites such as experiment.com.
But these efforts can never supplant the enormous role of NIH.
As Director Collins said: “How long can we go on without seeing irreversible damage to this engine of discovery that is so full of potential and yet is being starved for fuel?”