Age-Related Bias in NIH Awards

The number of young investigators with NIH grants has declined since 1982, but recent efforts by the agency to increase funding for early-stage investigators are working, a study finds.

By | June 6, 2017

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTEThe number of principal investigators (PI) under age 46 with grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) declined between 1982 and 2014, according to a study published yesterday (June 5) in PNAS.

Two researchers carried out an independent investigation using information about the age of PIs and the number of R01 grants (NIH’s oldest and most commonly used grant program) awarded from the agency’s databases.

Their analysis revealed that over a 32-year period, the number of young investigators with R01 grants fell while the number of grantees over age 55 increased.

“That phenomenon was caused by the general aging of the scientist population, and also because NIH’s budget jumped quite suddenly in the late 1990s,” study coauthor Michael Levitt, a professor of structural biology at Stanford University told Science. “When you get money from Congress, you can't keep it in a savings account—it has to be spent . . . And it’s very easy to spend money very quickly on old people because they have grants in place.”

The drop in the quantity of NIH grants to early-career researchers also corresponded with a decrease in the number of young PIs focusing on basic science, the study reports. “As basic sciences contributed so much to US Nobel Prizes in Medicine since 1950, new fundamental discoveries made by young PIs in the United States are vital for future breakthroughs in biomedicine,” the authors write in their report. “We see no alternative but to increase the number of basic scientists younger than 46 [years] of age.”

On a more optimistic note for the younger set, the researchers also found that NIH’s early-stage investigator (ESI) policy, which it implemented in 2008 to fund more young scientists, is working. Since 2010, Levitt found, the PI success ratio, the ratio of R01-grantees to the number of basic science PIs, has been increasing for young researchers.  

“I think this pessimistic message that [students] get is just not warranted right now,” Levitt told Science, referring to the discouraging conversations about the future of scientific careers. “The next few years are going to be a much better time.

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