Field of Science

Maryland Congressman asks the NIH to fund more young scientists

Maryland Congressman Andrew Harris
Now here's something that you don't get to see everyday - a politician taking (the right kind of) interest in the NIH's activities and asking the agency to support the most important ideas in basic biomedical research by funding young scientists. Maryland Congressman Andrew Harrison's thesis is that whatever money the NIH might have left after all the funding cuts is being spent on scientists in their 40s and beyond; he is mostly alluding to the depressing fact that most academic researchers now receive their first big RO1 grant at the age of 42. Harris says this is a mistake.

The problem, as he sees it, is that cutting-edge science is a young man's game, and it is also unlikely to be the game of someone who has already achieved his or her biggest hits:

"Every year the National Institutes of Health receives almost $30 billion in federal funds to invest in biomedical research. The bulk of that money goes to researchers who are in many cases esteemed in their fields — but also, in many cases, beyond the age when most scientists make their most important contributions to their fields.  
A study for the National Bureau of Economic Research from 2005 examined the age at which over 2,000 Nobel Prize winners and other notable scientists in the 20th century came up with the idea that led to their breakthrough. Most were between 35 and 39. Yet the median age of first- time recipients of R01 grants, the most common and sought-after form of N.I.H. funding, is 42, while the median age of all recipients is 52. More people over 65 are funded with research grants than those under age 35."
The Congressman makes another two observations that are cogent; first, that the NIH often funds glamorous research at the expense of more basic research, and second, that the NIH also seems to fund interesting projects that nonetheless seem far less important than research into humanity's most pressing problems like Alzheimer's disease.
"For many fields, particularly those that don’t have immediate commercial applications or sex appeal for grant-making nonprofit groups, the N.I.H. is a vital source of money. We’ll never know what breakthroughs were missed because young investigators were not provided with the resources necessary to pursue unique ideas over the last 15 years. They may have had the idea that would have led to a cure for ovarian cancer, Alzheimer’s disease or pediatric cardiomyopathy. 
...Today we see too many grants going to things like creating a video game for moms to teach them how to get their kids to eat more vegetables, or studying the creation of a social security system in southern Mexico. Such projects may have value to some, but is creating a video game really more important than researching a cure for Alzheimer’s?"
I have no problem seeing where Harris is coming from - the paucity of funds for young scientists is one of the biggest barriers for newly minted PhDs to consider academic research these days - but I am not sure the "young is great" theme applies as much to biomedical researchers as to, say, theoretical physicists. In fact a study which I blogged about a few years ago pointed out that because their work involves raw brain power more than anything else, theoretical physicists are the most likely to produce great breakthroughs in their 20s and early 30s; no wonder that the physics done by young Turks like Paul Dirac and Werner Heisenberg was called 'Knabenphysik' - the physics of youth.

As that study indicated however, with experimental sciences like biomedical research things are different, and many biomedical breakthroughs came from scientists at a relatively advanced age. There has been no synthetic organic chemist winning the Nobel Prize in his or her 20s for instance, and even the great Robert Burns Woodward - widely considered to be a true prodigy in chemistry if there ever was one - had to wait until his 40s to be recognized. When it comes to sciences like organic chemistry or molecular biology it's not a question of raw IQ; it's a question of spending those 10,000 hours to learn the tricks of laboratory manipulation, to assimilate the existing literature and, because of the great complexity of biological systems, to develop a feel for their workings. This inevitably takes time, even for very smart people.

Thus while I think Harris's heart is in the right place and we undoubtedly need more grants for young people, the real strategy should be to fund interesting ideas irrespective of age. I fear that Harris's proposal, if carried out to its logical conclusion, might achieve the opposite effect - it might alienate older researchers who are still very much capable for bright ideas. To fund the best science, all we have to do is to fund the best science.

Note: I did not even notice until much later that the Congressman is Republican. This gives me hope that I haven't turned one hundred percent cynical yet.


  1. Representative Harrison's proposal might run into difficulty when it meets the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which prohibits employment discrimination against persons 40 and older.

    1. Good point, I don't know how that will work out.


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