Is Mandatory Retirement the Answer to an Aging Workforce?
Is Mandatory Retirement the Answer to an Aging Workforce?

Is Mandatory Retirement the Answer to an Aging Workforce?

For many, it’s not a question of when senior academics should leave their posts, it’s about how to distribute scarce resources such as grants and faculty positions more fairly.

Mar 1, 2019
Katarina Zimmer

ABOVE: The University of Oxford is one of several UK universities that have introduced mandatory retirement ages for faculty.
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Had he been at almost any other institution in the UK, Hagan Bayley could have studied membrane proteins for as long as he wanted. But at the University of Oxford, the chemical biologist was asked to retire from his professorship of 16 years this coming September, and to give up his lab—along with the 20 graduate students and postdocs who work there—at what he considers the relatively young age of 68.

Fortunately for Bayley, he is able to stay three additional years, but that’s only because he applied to university administrators for an extension—a process he says dragged on for seven years, after he was denied twice and had to go through an arduous appeals process.

It’s a challenge that several Oxford academics have taken on since the university introduced a so-called “employer justified retirement age” in 2011, which effectively forces staff to leave their positions at a fixed age—originally 67 years old, but recently raised to 68. In August 2018, an Oxford literature professor went as far as suing the university for lost earnings, claiming age discrimination after being asked to retire at 67 in 2016. “You have to be very tenacious, because you can easily give up,” says Bayley.

The UK abolished its nationwide retirement age in 2011, 25 years after the US made the same move. But institutions can implement their own retirement rules if they can make a legitimate business argument. Oxford, along with the Universities of Cambridge and St. Andrews, decided to exercise that option in recent years. The reason, according to Oxford’s policy: to promote “inter-generational fairness,” equality, and diversity.

Mandatory retirement is just one approach that university administrators on both sides of the Atlantic are considering in order to curb what many view as a troubling trend in academic research, and particularly in the sciences—that senior researchers are retiring later and later, while siphoning away limited resources such as faculty positions and funding from younger researchers.

For Bayley, however, dismissing experienced researchers at the height of their careers isn’t just unfair—it would do more harm than good for science. “I don’t think that firing faculty members at 68 is going to give you the best science,” he says. “And it’s also not good for young people,” as lab members will have to find alternative posts after their PI leaves. “You’re not firing one person, you’re firing an entire research group.”

A senior cohort

Since the US abolished mandatory retirement in 1986, followed by Australia in 2004, and later the UK, the numbers of professors pushing 70 in those countries have soared. In the US, the mean age of life scientists employed in academic faculties has climbed from 45 in 1993 to 48 in 2010, according to a 2017 PNAS study (114:3879–84). The study’s authors note in their paper that they expect the trend to continue.

For some academics, the reasons for sticking around may be partly financial: the 2008 global recession has made early retirement a less attractive option than before. But many university researchers simply want to keep on working for as long as they’re healthy. Ecologist David Goodall of Edith Cowan University in Australia, for instance, kept his unpaid faculty position until the age of 104.

You’re going to find yourself in ten, fifteen, twenty years . . . where you have a huge hole in the middle of your workforce.

—Shirley Tilghman, Princeton University

The effects of an aging academic cohort on younger researchers are hard to quantify, notes Bruce Weinberg, a labor economist at Ohio State University and one of the PNAS study’s authors. But a few statistics are telling: the percentage of National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant recipients who are 36 years of age or younger dropped from 16 percent in 1980 to only 3 percent in 2014. And while in 1980 new investigators had to wait just one year on average to get federal funding, these days they wait up to five years.

In addition to delayed retirements that have diminished the number of available tenure-track positions, the number of new PhD candidates is dramatically rising. As a result, younger researchers spend years trapped in a cycle of temporary roles such as postdocs, traineeships, or adjunct positions—and may opt to leave academia altogether. “I am concerned that if we’re increasingly supporting an aging scientific workforce, that we may risk losing part of a generation of younger researchers and innovators,” says Weinberg. The imbalance is particularly troubling because the older researcher cohort tends to be less diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity, he adds.

Some institutions are addressing this situation by trying to gently ease out older professors. For instance, MIT’s engineering school announced a post-tenure, “semiretirement” position for senior researchers in 2016. Senior workers are paid less, according to the program, but can still teach and mentor, which frees up tenure-track positions for postdocs. Several other universities are trying to coax senior faculty into shutting down their labs by offering them lucrative retirement packages. 

The hardline route that Oxford and some other UK universities have taken, however, has been heavily criticized—even by many junior researchers. Aside from being discriminatory, and possibly hampering scientific progress by pushing out the most experienced investigators, the policy only addresses part of the problem. “Even if everyone were to retire who’s 65 and over, right now, it probably wouldn’t help my generation,” notes Gary McDowell, who left postdoctoral research in developmental biology at Tufts University in 2016 to direct Future of Research, a nonprofit that advocates for young scientists. “It’s not like an 80-year-old professor retires and that job goes to someone who’s in their 30s. It’s going to be someone in their 50s or 60s.”

Some academics think that the biomedical community needs to take a more holistic view of the situation. “I do worry that we have done nothing effectively to ensure that we are continuing to bring in a robust number of young people who are going to be the leaders of their field in another 25 years, nor have we frankly done enough to give our most senior colleagues ways in which they can retire with dignity,” says Shirley Tilghman, a professor of molecular biology and public policy and president emerita of Princeton University.

For her, the issue speaks to a wider crisis in academia. “At its core, this is an issue about how we structure the workforce,” Tilghman says. As she and colleagues outlined in an influential 2014 paper in PNAS (111:5773–77), shoring up the academic pipeline will require individual institutions, as well as funding bodies, to come up with solutions to distribute precious resources more fairly.

Correcting the funding landscape

Recently minted principal investigator Prachee Avasthi recalls well the struggle she experienced launching her own lab at the University of Kansas Medical Center. In 2015, she was given a position as assistant professor, along with an empty room and some time-limited start-up funds—everything she needed, save a federal grant to provide long-term support for her research on ciliary function in the green alga Chlamydomonas. (See “Prachee Avasthi: Cell Cosmetologist,” The Scientist, December 2018.)

Like other early-career scientists, she had to compete with senior researchers for a finite pool of grant money, putting her at a disadvantage. “People are more likely to believe the [older] investigator can pull this off because they’ve already pulled it off before,” she says. “Early-career people don’t have that track record.”

Avasthi recalls the period as particularly stressful because she had to secure funding before her start-up funds expired—a hurdle faced by many researchers in the process of setting up their own lab. Eventually, after around eight large grant proposals were unsuccessful, she secured an R35 award—a five-year grant that supports both early-career and established investigators—from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

I am concerned that if we’re increasingly supporting an aging scientific workforce, that we may risk losing part of a generation of younger researchers and innovators.

 —Bruce Weinberg, Ohio State University

How to distribute money more fairly across age groups is a question that several funding bodies have grappled with over the years. According to McDowell, the European Research Council has set a good example by creating separate funding schemes for early-, mid-, and late-career investigators. That way, you’re comparing “peer with peer, rather than comparing a 70-year-old professor at Harvard Med who has 40 years of papers and track records to a 35-year-old new investigator,” he says.

The NIH has gone back and forth on the issue for years. In 2013, the agency floated the idea of an “emeritus award” to help senior investigators in the process of winding down their research, But the proposal drew criticism from researchers who perceived it as a way to channel even more money to older investigators. In 2017, the newly proposed Grant Support Index (GSI), which would have capped the number of grants an individual can receive, was scrapped after one month, again in response to concerns voiced by the research community. Instead, the NIH decided to put about 3 percent of its budget towards grants for early- and mid-career investigators, as part of the so-called Next Generation Researchers Initiative.

Tilghman says that one of her main concerns is the potential impact of this hypercompetition on innovation in science. “What I often hear from my junior colleagues is, you won’t get funded if you’re proposing something that looks at all risky,” she explains. The system favors proposals that can guarantee results but will only move a field forward incrementally, rather than potentially propelling it into new, uncharted territory. The NIH has tried to address this issue by creating the New Innovator Awards (DP2), which reward early-career researchers with innovative proposals. But these need to be scaled up, Tilghman says. “There are simply not enough of them.”

For now, the main beneficiaries of such initiatives are younger researchers. Often, this leaves mid-career investigators out of the picture, notes Christopher Pickett, director of Rescuing Biomedical Research, a non-profit cofounded by Tilghman that researches solutions to systemic issues in life science. “I think there’s an assumption that once you’ve established your lab, then you’re out on your own.”

Everyone for themselves?

Rather than compete directly with senior investigators, many early-career scientists are stepping outside the research community in search of financial support. Geneticist Melissa Wilson Sayres of Arizona State University, for instance, recently raised $9,000 to sequence the genome of the Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum) through a crowdfunding campaign on experiment.com, a platform where many other scientists have begun to crowdfund their projects. Similar digital fundraising platforms, such as SciFundChallenge, have sprung up in recent years.

Other young researchers are experimenting with new ideas for obtaining funding. Last May, social scientist Irena Schneider of King’s College London co-launched Lyrical Science, an online platform where biomedical researchers can “pitch” their research in a presentation similar to a TED talk and directly engage with an online community of laypeople, corporations, and foundations interested in sponsoring their research. Ultimately this would “add express lanes into the funding ecosystem,” explains Schneider. So far only two scientists have signed up for the platform, which is still in beta mode, she says.

Some philanthropic organizations offer specific grants to relieve the pressure for early-career researchers to secure money straight off the bat. For instance, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s Ben Barres Early Career Acceleration Awards support young investigators studying Alzheimer’s, ALS, and other neurodegenerative diseases at academic institutions. And many disease foundations, such as the Children’s Tumor Foundation, the Foundation Fighting Blindness, and the Leukemia Research Foundation, all have funding mechanisms geared towards younger researchers.

A handful of academic institutions have also been stepping up to create fellowships for early-career scientists who want to lead their own lab and conduct research after completing a PhD. These include New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Harvard University, MIT, and Rockefeller University.

“Such opportunities may be able to help early-career researchers get in the door,” writes McDowell in an email—although for the scientific enterprise to be sustainable, researchers need to be sure of financial support throughout their entire research careers, he adds.

While individual initiatives can help offset the effects of an aging academic workforce and a lopsided funding landscape, the scientific community must consider the risk that too many researchers will leave academia in search of a more-secure career, notes Tilghman. “If you’re not doing that, you’re going to find yourself in ten, fifteen, twenty years . . . where you have a huge hole in the middle of your workforce,” she says. “You’re missing a generation, basically, and that has pretty significant implications.”

Katarina Zimmer is a freelance science writer living in New York City.

More of the Pie

Senior investigators’ share of the total NIH funding available for researchers has been growing in recent years. From 2000 to 2015, the portion of money going to researchers over 56 years old rose from 27 percent to 44 percent. This trend is largely driven by the increase in the proportion of grants going to senior researchers: between 2000 and 2015, the number of awardees over 56 years old nearly doubled, while the number of mid-career awardees only increased slightly and the number of early-career awardees moderately decreased.

The scientist staff

Correction (March 1): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the start-up funds that Prachee Avasthi received from her institution were small. The story has been updated to reflect that they were in fact generous in amount, but had a fixed expiration date. The Scientist regrets the error.