NIH Principal Investigators Are Getting Old

Just saw this striking video on the change in age distribution of National Institutes of Health Principal Investigators.

It is quite clear how much the distribution has shifted to the right over the past thirty years, and that a gap has opened up between young faculty entering the profession (illustrated through medical school data) and the typical age of receiving a grant.

Sally Rockey, NIH’s Deputy Director of Extramural Research, and her team put together the video, and have an accompanying post about the data.

As you move through the years from 1980 to 2010, you can see that both populations of faculty and PIs become less compressed in the age period between 28 and 65. In more recent years, you see fewer people entering the faculty at ages 28 and below, and very few people receiving an R01 award before age 33. But, the biggest difference is seen at the later ages. The elimination of mandatory retirement during the 80s and increasing life expectancy allowed people to remain employed much longer[1]. We also suspect that the current economic situation is forcing many people to reconsider their retirement.

In 1980, less than 1% of PIs were over age 65, and now PIs over age 65 constitute nearly 7% of the total. In parallel, in 1980, close to 18% of all PIs were age 36 and under. That number has fallen to about 3% in recent years. These are big changes.

There is some interesting discussion in the comments over there, so check out Rockey’s post for more. And for the really geeky, you can download the 34 slides (i.e., the data of each year) put together by Walter Schaffer that are what actually make up the video.

Given my own age (early 40s), I certainly applaud the lengthening of careers, but it’s not what jumped out at me when I first saw the video. Instead of seeing the tail of the distribution extending to the right, I saw the loss of the tail on the left (younger people dropping out) and most importantly, the massive shift in the main area of the curve to the right. Today most people aren’t getting funded around age 40 (as in 1980), but much closer to age 50.

So, what might be happening? Certainly young researchers are not getting funding like they used to. A large part of that is many people are staying in school longer (or starting doctorates later) and also staying in multi-year postdocs (often funded by NIH through heavy-hitter PIs). Still, a significant gap has opened up between the age distribution of medical school faculty (roughly 55% of NIH funding goes to med schools) and of NIH PIs.

So there has been a rise in funding to PIs at the peak of their powers. They manage teams of researchers, have proven track records, enjoy institutional backing, and often tackle highly specialized topics that will generate “new science” in the form of publications. In other words, NIH funding is rather like Big Business now, complicated, institutional, and focusing on very narrow areas where people can successfully compete on small margins.

That strikes me as a rather risk-averse approach. Neil Armstrong’s small steps, rather than his giant leap. For younger faculty, so much emphasis is placed on churning out publications and setting up labs and starting some sort of new research project – all criteria for tenure – that there is barely a moment to stretch one’s wings. To dream up new ideas. To explore other arenas that can lead to cross-fertilization. To take chances. All that is supposed to come later, we are told, once things are safe.

Or maybe the puzzles we are trying to solve now are so complicated that it takes quite some time to put together the necessary pieces, and that we only do that over the course of a career now, and not right at the beginning. Certainly I feel like that on some days.

Still, adjuncts are increasingly used and paid not very much, and young faculty are not getting the research dollars they once did. The distribution of money has changed, not just the age distribution of researchers, and that has serious consequences for who stays in research-intensive careers, what ideas and initiatives get supported, and what sorts of solutions actually get generated from all those research dollars.

Many thanks to Dr. Sally Rockey and her team for putting together the video. The visualization of data can be so helpful! And hat-tip to Sue Sheridan and the BioAnthropology News Facebook group for featuring the video first.

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6 Responses to NIH Principal Investigators Are Getting Old

  1. Nev says:

    A further issue is that it’s now virtually impossible to get an NIH predoc, postdoc or K without the sponsorship of an existing “heavy hitter”. This means that students and junior researchers can basically only get funding if they’re following a highly proscribed & pre-identified/pre-validated research trajectory. (For predocs one’s also virtually always forced to lodge one’s proposed research within a specific existing parent NIH grant.) A massive disincentive for innovation and also independent thinking (more generally) in younger researchers…

  2. I am 29 years old, received my PhD in biochemistry last year, I have two first author papers in reputable journals and yet I am unemployed. After watching many colleagues languish in postdoc-purgatory I decided I would first look for teaching positions at small colleges around the country. After three unsuccessful months of seeking I began looking for a post doc position. A year out and still no solid offer. I did not spend 26 straight years in school to be unemployed! Something has to give. Either PI’s have to start retiring in droves or there needs to be new universities founded so people like me can do what we were trained to do and have always wanted to do, teach and conduct research. Waiting with less and less patience.

    • Derek says:

      Someone needs to found an entirely new university so you can have a job doing what you were trained to do? Get a grip on reality. You are a highly trained individual who is having a tough time getting a job in a difficult market. Neither a PhD or a postdoc is a guarantee of anything – if you are “waiting with less patience”, perhaps you need to get off your ass and figure out what to do if your search for a teaching position does not work out. You can consult, you can help start a company, you can find a foundation that does disease-specific research, etc etc etc.

      You looked for positions for three whole months? “Something has to give”? I don’t envy being a year without work (I have been there) but commenting on how hard you have it is not going to help you. Maybe you aren’t going to get a teaching position (I don’t have any context to judge what two papers does for you there) and maybe there is something structurally wrong with the way that academic positions are funded. But that isn’t changing any time soon. So figure out what you want to do and go do it.

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  5. Kris says:

    Thanks Derek. I did. How are things with you?

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