After years of puzzling over how its grant-review process might be shortchanging younger scientists, the National Institutes of Health appears to have figured out a more fundamental truth: There just aren’t enough of them applying.
A report published on Thursday by several federal-grant experts breaks down NIH award rates by age groups, finding that older scientists aren’t necessarily any more successful than are their younger counterparts.
The report, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, instead concludes that older scientists absorb a disproportionate share of NIH money largely because there are more of them, and they are more likely to seek money.
If that’s a problem, write the authors, from the NIH and the National Science Foundation, it’s not easily solved. "The work force is aging," they write. "Our analysis and evidence suggests that any NIH intervention can only have a limited impact."
That simple realization represents something of a change of message from the NIH. For years agency officials, led by their director, Francis S. Collins, have pressed Congress to do something — usually involving more money — to improve the dire state of affairs facing younger researchers.
"This is the issue that wakes me up at night when I try to contemplate the future of where biomedical research can go in the United States," Dr. Collins told the House of Representatives' Committee on Appropriations last year in a typical lament of the plight of younger scientists. "They are finding themselves in a situation that is the least supportive of that vision in 50 years."
But Walter T. Schaffer, an author of the new report, said that the country actually has plenty of younger medical researchers. "Although an older work force might suggest the need to consider a potential acceleration in the need for replacement," said Mr. Schaffer, a senior scientific adviser for extramural research at NIH, in a written response to questions on his findings, "there is no evidence that there is a shortage of young, well-trained biomedical researchers to take their place on faculties in schools of higher education or as principal investigators on NIH research grants."
The new study found that researchers age 35 to 39 saw their success rate in applying for NIH grants fall from 48.7 percent in 1980 to 24.8 percent in 2014. The rate for those under age 35 dropped from 46.1 percent in 1980 to 19.2 percent in 2014. But with tighter federal budgets, older researchers saw similar sharp declines over the same period, from 45 percent to 25.1 percent among those age 60 to 64, and from 51.3 percent to 23 percent among those age 65 to 69.
Age-related discrepancies in overall funding are, therefore, due mostly to older researchers' applying more often, said another author, Misty L. Heggeness. That raises the question of why younger researchers do not apply as frequently.
"This definitely complicates things and requires a larger community effort to examine why younger applicants are not applying to NIH for funding as they have in the past," said Ms. Heggeness, a former NIH economist now working at the U.S. Census Bureau. "We also need to think creatively about what it means to have an aging work force and how to plan for the future given this reality."
The report's other authors were Frances Carter-Johnson, an education-data scientist at the NSF, and Sally J. Rockey, a former NIH deputy director for extramural research now serving as executive director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research.