I welcome the news of Barack Obama's smart choices for cabinet and sub-cabinet positions. This is a promising sign that the scientific process will once again be broadly valued here.
A group of graduate students recently asked my perspective on the impact of the current funding crunch. As a young investigator who began a tenure-track position in 2004, one year after the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding trajectory inflected from flat to negative, I understand the challenges to new scientists.
Since 2004, I have been the main author of three published articles. During this time, I have been awarded several small grants and have narrowly failed to attain an R01 application — the benchmark for promotion and tenure at most US universities. Meanwhile, I have watched junior faculty with similar records moved out of the tenure stream, seen scientific enthusiasm eroded and heard faculty members question the rewards of a career committed to research. What makes the crucial difference for me is tremendous support from my department and colleagues.
The former NIH director, Elias Zerhouni, strove to reverse the trend that has raised the average age of first funding from 37 in 1980 to 42 in 2007. As a result of his efforts, at least 1,650 investigators will receive their first R01 in 2009, up from 1,354 in 2006 (see Nature 456, 153; 2008). I hope to be among them. My age? 39. My optimism? High, reflecting a supportive university environment.
Continued, active investment in new faculty not only ensures the success of young scientists but also directly influences the career decisions of PhD candidates. I hope our new president and administration truly recognize that our future is in science and technology, and that a new generation of innovators needs their full support.