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Just Give Them Grants

Before it gets displaced by this week’s new editorial, I thought I should call attention to an important editorial by Alan Leshner, the AAAS executive officer, in last week’s Science (AAAS membership or a site license is required, I think).

A lot has been written about the increasing age at which scientists reach independence, and the struggles of young scientists to establish their careers. Leshner’s proposal is appealing for its simplicity: "If the consensus is that young scientists really need a regular research grant to launch their careers, why not simply tilt funding decisions more towards new investigators?"

After all, he points out, meritorious proposals are submitted by young investigators in greater numbers than can be funded, so a preference for youth should not result in a major fall-off in quality. So why not, in effect, make age a criterion? Youth may not be a direct indication of scientific merit, but the proposal is justifiable on policy grounds, and there’s something to be said for the suggestion that a proporal from a young scientist has more merit than an equally good proposal from an older one.

And at NSF, perhaps age should be considered a "broader impacts" criterion. Most would agree that establishing a new scientist is more valuable than giving another grant to an establishes scientist (assuming of course that the science has equal merit). So, "I am young and wish to establish a productive research program and I haven’t yet received my first real research grant" seems to me a reasonable addition to the broader-impacts section of an NSF proposal. Think of it as workforce diversification. Hopefully the reviewers will, too.

So, next time you submit an NSF grant, try advertising your youth in the broader-impacts section. Any takers?

2 comments on “Just Give Them Grants”

  1. Ad Lagendijk says:

    This would be age discrimination.
    I agree that there is problem, but I think I have a better solution, or at least a solution that is worth discussing IMHO. A remedy that does not suffer from this type of discrimination. In what I suggest it is not the old guy against the young guy. It is the established scientist against the newcomer. To solve the problem at hand, in the Netherlands (physics) granting organization FOM, has come up with a scheme in which newcomers get an advantage by giving them bonus points. With these bonus points starters get funded (considerably) more easily.
    I can imagine a grant system in which bonus points are part of a sophisticated scheme. Much like golf. Although the term used in golf, handicap, would probably not go down very well in the scientific community.
    In this model late bloomers still have a change as they will have a large handicap. It is even amusing to speculate about a development in which a scientist’s handicap could play a similar role as for instance the h-index does.
    Ad Lagendijk
    sciencesurvivalblog

  2. Jim Austin says:

    Ad,
    You’re absolutely right, the key concept is “early career,” not “young.” Excellet point, thanks.
    Be Well,
    Jim

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