The Death of Innovation, or How the NIH is Undermining Its Future

Donald Kennedy's latest editorial in Science notes that the vast majority of NIH grants are going to older investigators.  Writes Kennedy;

In 1980, despite a tightened academic job market..."new" investigators held 50% of competing new grants, and 23% of all awards were going to scientists under 35. Now, alas, that percentage has shrunk to less than 4%, with a huge corresponding increase in the proportion going to older researchers.

This despite the fact that the NIH budget has at least doubled since 1980.  (The figure is from an interesting article on how to fund science and innovation by Kei Koizumi for the AAAS.)  A rough Google search suggests 80% of PhD's in the US are held by people under 40 (does anybody have good numbers for biology?), which means that the vast majority of NIH dollars are going to investigators who have been around awhile.

Now, of course, I don't mean to imply that "older researchers" aren't innovating.  Few brand-spanking new PhD's can keep up with Sydney Brenner.  A characteristic of biology that distinguishes it from theoretical physics is that doing good biology requires the grasp of a great many facts and stories.  Whereas a the guts of a PhD in physics can be derived over a weekend (or so I was told upon arriving at Princeton -- mine took rather longer) the combination of biological lore and experimental art accumulates over time.  But if we aren't funding young scientists with new ideas then we are missing out.  New methods and tools are the key to progress in biology.

Why should young scientists from abroad bother to come here?  Why should any young scientist bother to stay here?  Yes, yes -- the US still has the biggest budget and a tremendous diversity of research.  But even Sydney seems to be spending most of his time in Europe and Asia these days.  If we fail to ensure proper funding and opportunity for young biological scientists, then the innovation is simply going to happen elsewhere.