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Beryl Lieff Benderly

A “Shocking Disproportion” in Funding of Young and Older Scientists

That young biomedical investigators are getting a raw deal in the competition for funding against older, more established, competitors is a widely held suspicion these days (and not only among young investigators.)  It especially rankles because history suggests that young scientists, not well-connected graybeards, are the ones likeliest to do transformative new science.

I had no idea just how large the the discrepancy is until Stephen Apfelroth of Albert Einstein College of Medicine told me about some calculations he has done based on information he received from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 


Using 2008 figures, Apfelroth concludes that in that year $815 million
in grants  went to investigators between ages 30 and 39, but  $3,312
million to those between 40 and 49, $3,770 million to those between 50
and 59, and $1,722 to those between 60 and 69.  Given the nature of the
job market and the large numbers of young scientists cooling their heels
in postdoc appointments, there are fewer investigators in their
thirties than even the most senior age bracket.  Apfelroth’s results
also show, however, that the average amount awarded per investigator
increases with age.

 Apfelroth considers this a “rather shocking
disproportion,” he tells me by e-mail, and one that he believes violates
NIH’s stated aim of encouraging more young investigators to get started
in their careers.  He also believes that it illustrates “the study
sections’ insistence now that even the best proposals ideawise must also
have an excellent “track record” (comparable to established
researchers.)”

A strong proponent of more support and
encouragement for promising young researchers, Apfelroth wants NIH to
“publish the information they have internally on grant funding dollars
by age cohort (right now they only put out number of grants).”  Doing
this, he believes, would throw light on the plight of scientists at the
beginning of their careers.  And lest he be accused on self-interest, he
frankly admits that the category of young scientist does not apply to
him.

Apfelroth has a solid point.  Although it is
by now pretty much a cliche that the average NIH grantee is almost 43 before
landing that crucial first R01, it is stunning to realize that twice as
much grant money is going to researchers nearing the age of eligible for
Social Security than to those in what, by historical standards at
least, are their most creative years.  In addition, four times as much
goes to those in their 40s than to those in their 30s. 

Whatever the reasons for these discrepancies, if this nation is truly
interested in innovation, there is something very wrong with this
picture.