The average age at which researchers win their first grants from the US National Institutes of Health has risen in the past several decades. Credit: Noel Hendrickson/Getty

For years, biomedical researchers in the United States have warned of a worri­some trend: as competition for grants increases, younger scientists are finding it harder to keep up. In 1980, the average age at which researchers received their first major award from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) was 38; by 2013, this had risen to more than 45 (ref. 1). And the overall share of grant funding won by scientists younger than 36 withered from 5.6% in 1980 to just 1.2% in 2012.

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Like ageing Crown princes, junior biomedical researchers in the United States face long years as leaders-in-waiting. Now, in a 3 February posting, the NIH has asked researchers whether the agency would be wise to give ‘emeritus grants’ to senior scientists to induce them to wrap up their research. The funding would “help to ensure the orderly transition of an experienced researcher’s work when they wish to go on to something else, and also to recognize their legacy”, says Sally Rockey, the NIH’s deputy director for extramural research. If entrenched grant recipients leave the lab, the NIH hopes, more money will be available for early-career scientists.

Those who support the idea say that it could ease the pressure on senior researchers to continue working in order to bolster their retirement accounts, which in the United States largely depend on employee contributions. The evidence for this is anecdotal, however, and proponents of emeritus grants admit that few senior researchers complain that they lack money to close their labs.

But judging from more than 100 comments left on Rockey’s widely read blog, many researchers are highly sceptical of the plan, and are incensed by what they perceive as a retirement bonus for the already better-resourced. “The idea of allocating precious limited federal research dollars to a special ‘emeritus’ award appears, at best, tone deaf, and at worst, suggests underlying biases within the NIH that favour established researchers,” says neuroscientist Benjamin Saunders, a postdoctoral researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Balti­more, Maryland.

Credit: Source: NIH

Economic research suggests that paying older scientists to abandon their labs is unlikely to be the most effective way for the NIH to achieve its ultimate goal. Policies for adjusting markets work better when they are direct, says labour economist Richard Freeman of the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “If your goal is to have more young researchers have independent awards and positions, it would be more efficient just to give them that,” he says. “Any time you try indirect methods, there is much more uncertainty as to what will happen.”

But the NIH has had mixed success with policies designed to give more money to new investigators. Since 2007, the percentage of grants won by new applicants has approached the share reaped by experienced scientists (see ‘Age gap’), but critics say that funded proposals from younger researchers are of lower quality than those from older scientists. And despite the NIH’s efforts, the average age at which a researcher wins his or her first award has not declined.

This may be partly because of broader demographic changes in the biomedical workforce. About 1 in 3 working scientists was over 50 in 2010, compared with 1 in 5 in 1993. This helps to explain why the average age of NIH principal investigators has risen. The age of first innovation itself might be increasing, too, according to analyses of patent filings and the age at which Nobel laureates win their prizes. Benjamin Jones, an economist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, has found that over the past century there has been a shift towards productive science at older ages, perhaps because innovation now requires more knowledge2.

An even bigger challenge is an imbalance between the healthy supply of young scientists and the number of senior-level jobs, says Michael Teitelbaum, a demographer at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The problem has been exacerbated by erratic NIH funding. From 1998 to 2003, the agency’s budget doubled, to US$27.2 billion. Flush with grant money, academic research centres expanded, making jobs for biomedical-science graduates plentiful and attracting more students to the field.

Fortunes subsequently reversed. Since 2003, the NIH’s budget has contracted by around 25% in real terms, increasing competition for dwindling grant money among the surplus of early-career scientists created during the boom.

Without steady growth in the NIH budget, some have suggested that the solution is to train fewer graduates for careers in biomedical research. But the pipeline of new investigators shows no signs of drying up. In 2013, US universities conferred 8,471 biomedical PhDs. These joined thousands of other researchers eligible that year for the NIH’s Early Stage Investigator awards — 785 grants aimed at researchers who had graduated in the past decade. Too many heirs are awaiting too few crowns.