Science Funding Shifts Due to Potentialities and Ageism

Institutionalized and irrational age discrimination has crept into an unlikely sector of the U.S. government – federal funding for neuroscience research.

The National Institutes for Health (NIH) has adopted a “Next Generation Researchers Initiative” that will allocate $210 million  in funding per year for the next five years ($1.1 billion) for biomedical research for early-stage and mid-career “investigators” (a.k.a. scientists).

scienceNIH officials claim this is necessary because baby boomers refuse to retire and are crowding out younger scientists and that this threatens to deter new scientific advances in the years ahead.

It is true the scientific workforce is two or three years older today than in the past but there is no evidence that this will have any adverse impact on the pace or quality of future scientific discoveries. It also seems probable that many factors contribute to joblessness for younger scientists, including changes in funding patterns for scientific research, globalism, automation and the economy.

Using the NIH’s reasoning, taxpayers should create a special fund for newly-minted history PhD’s and law school grads, who also can’t find jobs.

A cynical observer might surmise that the NIH is using a fundamentally ageist approach to disguise the Agency’s reluctance to take on major university research labs. According to NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. ten percent of NIH-funded investigators receive more than 40 percent of NIH funding and most of these investigators are located in research labs at small number of major universities.  Collins states this concentration may result in a decline in productivity in the future.

So instead of taking money away from Harvard, Stanford  and MIT, the NIH is creating a new and separate funding stream for the “next generation.”

Remember the quaint notion that taxpayer research dollars should be allocated based upon merit?

Dr. Michael Lauer, the NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research, states in his blog that Congress, in passing the 21st Century Cures Act last year, called upon the NIH to develop and promote policies that will attract and sustain support for diverse groups of “outstanding young and new investigators.”

Lauer writes that “[d]ata and models” show the scientific workforce is aging more rapidly than the general workforce and that this is “leading to concerns that promising younger and mid-career investigators risk being crowded out.”

The “data and models” to which Lauer refers are contained in a single article by two economists from Ohio State University, David M. Blau and Bruce A. Weinberg called, Why the US science and engineering workforce is aging rapidly.”* The article was published last March by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists.

The authors write that the average age of employed scientists increased from 45.1 to 48.6 between 1993 and 2010. They attribute this seemingly modest age increase to demographics (the baby boomers) and the elimination of mandatory retirement by universities in 1994.

Blau and Weinberg  use tentative language to discuss the significance of the age increase in the science workforce. They point to “potential concern if the large number of older scientists crowd out younger scientists, making it difficult for them to establish independent careers.” (Emphasis supplied.)  And they speculate that “scientists are believed to be most creative earlier in their careers, so the aging of the workforce may slow the pace of scientific progress.” (Emphasis supplied.)

There is no evidence that scientists are more creative earlier in their careers. In an interview in Science Daily, Weinberg concedes there is no proof that aging causes scientists to be less creative or productive. Blau notes in another article that the mean age of Nobel Prize winning achievements since 1980 is 48.

Former Democratic President Barack Obama signed the 21st Century Cures Act. He also passed an executive order in 2010 that carves out an exception  to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act by permitting federal agencies to hire “recent graduates”  – almost all of whom are under the age of 40.  As a result of Obama’s order, tens of thousands of  older workers have been excluded  from even applying for federal jobs.  Obama justified the order by claiming the federal government ‘s merit based hiring system put it at a disadvantage compared to private industry in hiring young people.

Early stage investigators are within 10 years of completing their terminal research degree or medical residency, while mid-career investigators are within 10 years of receiving their first NIH grant.

* Note: Despite the fact that Blau and Weinberg’s article was supported with taxpayer funds through  the National Bureau of Economic Research, the full article is not available to the general public on-line. The description quoted here is from the article abstract.

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