NIH: Grant Competition Brings Age Friction

Nobody wants to face up to this, but we’ve got too many well-qualified health-related researchers relative to the amount of money available to keep them at work. And every year, more of them enter a cash-strapped grant market that guarantees waste of talent and disappointment.

The scarcity economy in science has long manifested itself in serial postdoc appointments that are really holding patterns for young scientists who would otherwise be unemployed. It also shows up in the surfeit of well-trained applicants for entry research posts in universities, industry, and government. Now comes a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Congress’s investigative service, describing how the National Institutes of Health is trying to cope with the problem: by denying grants to some senior scientists with highly rated applications in favor of first-time applicants with lower scores in the evaluation process. The tilt toward youth partially addresses the rising age of NIH’s first-time grant recipients — over 40 for many years running. But it comes at the cost of support for seasoned, productive researchers, while still leaving many young researchers stranded for lack of money. The GAO report, “National Institutes of Health: Completion of Comprehensive Risk Management Program Essential to Effective Oversight” (GAO-09-687), focuses on NIH’s basic extramural awards: the so-called RO1s. In recent years, the GAO found, there’s been a rising incidence of awards for peer-reviewed applications that scored below the “payline,” a cutoff based on projections of available money, the number of applications, and dollars per grant. Thus, in fiscal 2003, 6,461 applications were funded, of which 625, or 9.7 percent, were “exceptions,” (i.e., below the payline). The comparable figures for 2007 were 5,715 applications funded, of which 1,059, or 18.5 percent, were sub-payline.

Although the exceptions are legally at the discretion of the directors of the 24 NIH institutes and centers that award grants, they nonetheless are out of harmony with NIH’s deep devotion to peer review as the sacred mechanism for assuring scientific quality. A shift in attitude and policy, however, took hold under former NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, who once lamented that the number of investigators over age 70 exceeded the number under 30. In a response included in the GAO report, NIH’s parent Department of Health and Human Services cited the need to bring new investigators into the workforce “to replace those who choose to leave or leave because their applications are no longer competitive.” The response conceded that “In some cases, an adequate supply of new investigators is dependent on funding applications that receive review scores outside the normal funding range,” but it added that “these applications are still within the range of scores that are considered to be highly meritorious.” Maybe so, but some senior scientists are fiercely protesting the shift. Writing in the September issue of The Scientist, Leo Costello, professor of physiology and endocrinology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, assailed NIH for “age discrimination,” adding that as a longtime NIH grantee, he “successfully competed with established researchers based on merit, without preferential treatment.” Today’s young scientists, he asserted, “are trained to be myopic super-technologists,” whereas creative scientists with broad perspectives “are penalized in the grant review process because of their experience and success.” Peter Farnham, speaking for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, told the New York Times that “At 19 percent, they’re taking too much from the more seasoned investigators.” The fiscal strains in science are not likely to recede in foreseeable years. The two-year $10.4 billion bonanza that Congress awarded NIH takes some strain out of the system, but once it’s gone, NIH, like all government agencies, will be confronted by the growing political demands for deficit reduction. Meanwhile, it’s my impression that a growing number of productive scientists are inclined to remain in the lab and in NIH grants competition well beyond normal retirement age. And looking ahead, young scientists are graduating in record numbers. According to the latest PhD count from the National Science Foundation, 7,173 were graduated in 2007 with degrees in “biological sciences” — an increase of 1,327 over 1998.

The graduate-training enterprise is keyed to growth, regardless of the dreary job market that awaits many graduates.

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