Can awarding grants to early career researchers change the face of science?
“We’ll never know what breakthroughs were missed because young investigators were not provided with the resources necessary to pursue unique ideas over the last 15 years.”
Andy Harris, a physician and a Republican representative from Maryland in Young, Brilliant, and Underfunded
Innovation lies at the heart of academic research. However, one of the challenges academic research is grappling with is the bias against young researchers, which adversely affects scientific innovation and advancement. Early career researchers struggle to receive grants because granting committees are known to favor esteemed researchers. This trend is evident from the increasing age at which researchers receive grants: the average age at which researchers received their first major award from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the year 1980 was 38, which increased to more than 45 by 2013. Moreover, the overall share of grant funding won by scientists younger than 36 withered from 5.6% in 1980 to just 1.2% in 2012. As a result, many young minds are forced to leave research and pursue other career avenues.
The extent of loss for science this brings can be gauged from a recently published study entitled “Age And The Trying Out Of New Ideas.” Economists M. Packalen and J. Bhattacharya analyzed more than 20 million biomedical papers published over the past 70 years, and they found that young researchers are much more likely than older scientists to study exciting innovative topics and that senior researchers are more likely to publish in trending areas when they are supervising a younger scientist. Taking into account the contribution early career researchers can make to science, there is a need to address the difficulties they face in launching their academic careers.
Andy Harris, a Republican congressional representative from Maryland and a physician, highlights the situation of young researchers in an editorial in the New York Times entitled, “Young, Brilliant, and Underfunded.” He mentions that of the $30 billion in federal funds that the National Institutes of Health receives to invest in biomedical research, most of the money goes to researchers who are esteemed in their fields, and sometimes, beyond the age when most scientists make their most important contributions to their fields. Some vital facts he points out are:
- Most Nobel recipients made their discoveries before they were 40 years old, which suggests that the most dramatic and fertile years of research may be the earliest years.
- The proportion of federal research funding going to investigators older than 65 was greater than that going to researchers younger than 35.
- More funding seems to make things worse, as increases in funding have actually accelerated these trends.
Harris appeals for the need to promote young researchers early in their career in order to provide them with the opportunities to explore their innovative ideas.
While attempts have been made to recognize and reward young researchers, such as the Fields Medal Prize which is awarded to researchers under the age of 40, most countries are faced with the challenge of redistributing grants to young researchers and helping them advance their careers. Senior researchers hold on to their positions longer, making it difficult for young researchers to climb the academic ladder. Recently, NIH sought to tackle this problem by offering ‘emeritus grants’ to senior scientists to prompt them to pass on their funding to early-career researchers, which has received mixed reactions from academia.
Granting committees feel responsible to award grants to researchers who have a sound academic research record. However, considering the impact young researchers can have on academic research, there is a need for granting committees to shift their focus from researchers to the research. Harris underscores the need to keep the heart of academic research young by remarking at the end of his editorial that “Doing a better job of targeting good researchers who are doing valuable work in the prime of their careers can ensure that taxpayer money is well spent, and that science as a whole continues to benefit us all.”
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