And people think I’m down about the current situation.
In the last issue of Cell, Robert A. Weinberg is calling the current batch of postdocs The Lost Generation.
The funding policies of the NIH have made it increasingly difficult for young researchers to procure research funds. This threatens to drive a whole generation of young people away from careers in basic biomedical research.
The numbers are striking. Over the past generation, the age at which American biomedical researchers with PhD degrees succeed in obtaining their first R01 award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has increased from 34.2 to 41.7 years of age. As a consequence, the biomedical community in the United States lives with the prospect of relying on an aging cohort of researchers to direct its research projects. The reasons for this are surely complex, but the long-term trend is ominous for the future of the American research enterprise. Why are R01 grants becoming so difficult to obtain? And what does this portend for future innovation and discovery by NIH-supported researchers?
Feed the old, starve the young.
The history of the last half-century demonstrates in a compelling fashion that much of the innovation in American biomedical research comes from young researchers working in relatively small, highly mobile, creative research groups. These groups operate opportunistically to exploit new research findings and to catapult our understanding forward, often doing so with stunning rapidity. These younger researchers, ranging from predoctoral students to principal investigators in their 30s and early 40s, have time and again delivered on the promise that unfettered imaginations and boundless energy are uniquely suited to generate new conceptual paradigms in biology. These young people represent the cadre of researchers whose vitality we must preserve at all costs. These people are the last who should suffer from a flat NIH budget.
Those who lead the U.S. Federal research agencies in Bethesda, Maryland, have lost sight of this simple truth. As a consequence, American biomedical research is increasingly reverting to models of research organization that have held back scientific progress in many other parts of the world. In these models, researchers acquire their scientific independence only when in their 40s and even 50s, long after the peak of their scientific creativity has passed.
But it’s not only that money is going to older researchers. Money is being fed into the latest fad, “Big Biology”. These Big Biology groups are led by the elders … and quite honestly have been oversold.
The failure to recognize and halt this trend is compounded by another problem. As time goes on, ever-larger proportions of NIH funds are diverted to funding research collaboratives of various sizes to the detriment of small, investigator-initiated projects. Perhaps those in power have been influenced by the obvious successes of the Human Genome Sequencing Project and the bounty of useful information that it has yielded. Those who control the scientific purse strings seem to have lost sight of the fact that this undoubted success does not provide a useful template for how most discovery research is conducted. In the case of the National Cancer Institute, this vision of grand projects and their utility has caused this particular Institute to invest large amounts of funds in proteomics, nanotechnology, and a massive software development program that aspires to make the data systems of American research hospitals intercompatible. Implied in the launching of these large-scale projects is the notion that if small-scale projects yield relatively small advances, much larger projects will yield proportionately more.
Stated differently, some live with the notion that the era of small-scale discovery research has passed and that the time has finally arrived to organize large research consortia to move things forward more effectively. The truth is otherwise: the vast majority of recent leaps forward have come, as they did in the past, from relatively small research groups that have been given the license to venture out and explore the outer boundaries of existing understanding. Large-scale projects surely have their place, and technology advances made over the past decade dictate that some of these must be supported in order for science to be moved forward. But in the end, the viability of small research groups and investigator-initiated research should be paramount and must be protected; indeed, it must be the number one priority for those who invest in biomedical research. Large collaborative research programs tend to stifle discovery research rather than expediting it.
As a consequence of these trends, small-scale discovery research is under siege, yet it is precisely such small-scale science that attracts the best and the brightest of our young people. Many of those who are training for careers in research do not look forward to working as members of large research consortia, in which they will only serve as small cogs in very large wheels.
So is the prognosis for the near future? Weinberg has a dire prediction:
Increasingly, these factors dictate that the best and the brightest are not entering our ranks. As a consequence, those of us who conduct discovery research are confronting the prospect of a lost generation, a wide gap in our ranks, as bright young people look elsewhere to discover their career paths. The marvelous engine of American biomedical research that was constructed during the last half of the 20th century is being taken apart, piece by piece. We will all pay for this destruction for decades to come.