Updating the age of first NIH R01 award trends: Flatlining

February 14, 2012

Way back in 2004, a News of the Week bit in Science by Jocelyn Kaiser [PDF] included the now infamous graphic showing the average age of first R01 award from the NIH had risen to 41.9 years of age. This led to a lot of “Jesus-is-coming-look-busy” behavior out of the NIH, as reflected in youth-focused initiatives, including the creation of the Early Stage Investigator definition (no more than 10 years past the PHD award) out of the New Investigator (no prior major/R01-equivalent award) class.

We now have an update from the Rock Talk blog which continues the trend up through the 2011 FY that just ended in October.

My initial reaction was “That’s it????”. After all these measures and attention, all they’ve managed to do is to flatline the trend at 42 years for the past 7 years?

My slightly more considered reaction is “Damn, I hate being right.”

I’ve maintained in both direct and indirect ways on this blog and elsewhere that the NIH approach to fixing the problem of younger investigators fairing poorly at the NIH trough is too little and too indirect. The major input to the system has always been the study section. Peer review. Conducted by “peers”. Except, oopsie, the “peers” are diverse in sex, geographical region, job category, ethnicity/race, University/Institution type….but most certainly not diverse where it counts for the young. The NIH choose to correct the bias against younger investigators by using Programmatic Priority decision making to pick up awards out of the order of funding (which doesn’t compromise science, btw). While I am generally in support of the system by which Program staff of NIH ICs decide to fund grants mostly, but not entirely, in the order determined by peer review I was not a fan of this as the only mechanism to fix the problem of young investigator hosage at the study section level.

As the prior NIH Director, The Great Zerhouni, noted [PDF] in 2007, immediately after implementing the exception funding (aka “pickups”) strategy, study sections started “punishing the young investigators with bad scores,” says Zerhouni.

This initiative fell smack into the truism that despite the best attempts (and firmest admonishments) of the SRO that the study section is to rank applications in a smooth distribution and not pay one iota of attention to the “F-word”, people can’t help but bench mark their scoring to the Fund/Don’t Fund dichotomy. Which means they operate at some level on an internal prediction or expectation* about where paylines and/or eventual success rates are going to fall. When the reviewers got wind that special considerations were being extended to ESI or NI applications, they re-calibrated their perception of the payline and scored accordingly. It was not so much that people were being intentionally punitive, they were simply expressing their existing bias under new parameters.

Some may have even thought they were being super clever because now they could score one more Established Investigator application within the perceived payline and still give the ESI application a likely-fundable score, all the while appearing to spread out the scores in his or her pile of assignments. Bonus!

There is another post up at Rock Talk that provides further information on the longitudinal age trends of the NIH investigator pool. It smells to me of more fake learned-helplessness excuse making along the lines of “what can we do? the demographics are relentless.”. Sally Rockey seems particularly fond of this animation of slides they’ve put up in numerous powerpoint files, but I’m unimpressed. The trendlines for PIs over 66 and under 36 are more interesting to me.

Depressing to see, isn’t it? As a comment on that post noted:

http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2011/05/13/update-on-myth-busting-number-of-grants-per-investigator/ includes the total number of PIs on grants in 1986 and 2009. In 1986, there were 16,532PIs of which around 16% were age 36 or younger. In 2009, there were 26,183 PIs of which around 3% were age 36 or younger. That means, despite the large increase in PIs, the raw number of young PIs plummeted from around 2645 to 785. This is depressing.


So, smart guy, what is your solution?“, I hear you ask. Well, I’ll tell you.

Number one, fix the diversity on study section issue. Strive for representation of those who are as-yet-unfunded that approximates their application numbers. The competition of biases is the only tried and true solution.

Two, continue the pickups. Do so in a balancing way that does not merely focus on “Young versus EveryoneElse”. Get serious about re-balancing the aging juggernaut of Baby Boomers against the two scientific generations that slot in just below them**.

Three, ditch the current definition of the ESI as being 10 years out from PhD. This was arbitrary, unfair and asinine from the beginning. It should have been tagged to the first professorial level appointment and/or the first time proposing applications to the NIH as a PI (any Research mechanism, not just R01).

Four, go after study section behavior. Hard. Train and educate. Provide measures of treatment of young versus established investigators, break it down by age if necessary. Give feedback and hold the section’s feet to the fire to do better. Expect SROs to ditch reviewers who just can’t get on board. Yes, they know. They can do it.

Five, snap the Universities into line. This is hard politically but duck soup in a practical sense. NIH awards funding to whom it chooses, as we’ve already discussed above, re: pickups. There is no “deserve”. There is no “right” to funding. There is ONLY what serves the interests of the NIH. So they are perfectly well within their rights to say things like “Yeaaah, we’re not going to fund any Training Grants at an institution that has a crappy record*** on hard money hires for Assistant Professors”. Or “No supplements for you!”. Or “We’re not going to use our discretionary exception funding for any of your**** applications until you get better.” Or even “Dudes, we’re totally serious. No new awards at all until you show us more Assistant Professor hires, better age distribution and yes we will be examining the deals just like we do for the R00 phase of the K99/R00 mechanism to make sure you aren’t pulling shenanigans”.

In my view, we will know the NIH is not really serious about these demographic trends until and unless they take a stab at item Five.
*A lack of calibration on this issue can lead to some sad results. Such as when those who are new to the section in question (or perhaps NIH review in general) lament at the dinner afterwards that they thought they had recommended “a good score” for some particular proposal.

**Self-serving alert!

***Define criteria however you like. Come up with something that you think will address the goal. This is not the point, the point is for NIH to actually deploy it’s considerable power of the purse.

****I know you didn’t forget that the applicant and the awardee for the NIH grant is the University and not the designated PI, Dear Reader. Right?

No Responses Yet to “Updating the age of first NIH R01 award trends: Flatlining”

  1. Jim OBrien Says:

    A Modest Proposal – the efforts to change these metrics suggest a concern for a systematic bias. In science, the best way to mitigate such bias is well-founded: randomization. How about, instead of the traditional study section review, we do away with that ENTIRELY. Take these funds and provide for additional grants. Require only that a proposal is responsive to an RFA based on minimal review (as is doen now) and then put all the proposals in the bin. Pull them out randomly until there are no more funds. I bet that the output would actually be improved as a result of more proposals being funded. If youw ant some oversight – have greater review of progress reports and have a quick trigger for pulling the plug. Currently we are too focused on the application rather than the work. Maybe trust more at the outset and require investigators to prove they can do it…or lose their funding.


  2. “Flatline” is indeed an appropriate description, as it likely reflects the death of young scientists.


  3. becca Says:

    Not to be evil or anything, but what should the age distribution look like? And how do we know?


  4. DrLizzyMoore Says:

    ‘Flatline’ is more than appropriate. It’s not just the ‘death’ of young scientists; it’s the death of middle-aged scientists who can’t get any funding. These awesome minds are being sent out to pasture (aka assigned ‘teaching’ and shuttering their labs). Departments’ slush funds are dried up and can’t provide emergency stipends to support grad students in these labs. You can only apply for ‘bridge funding’ so many times. At least us young are given ‘start-ups’ to bleed. These individuals aren’t only valuable scientific mentors, but valuable faculty mentors-we’re at risk of losing a significant amount of leadership…..


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    Not to be evil or anything, but what should the age distribution look like? And how do we know?

    an issue of debate somewhat orthogonal to the method, in my view. Clearly the NIH has taken the approach that the current demographic distribution is bad and too old. Focus on the 10-year interval post-PhD and the 42 year mean time to first award (damn, don’t you wish they would give us medians and interquartile ranges?) is the evidence.

    They do not seem that concerned about my approximate demographic range, so naturally I object to that part of their stance…..


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    we’re at risk of losing a significant amount of leadership…..

    another off-and-on concern of mine is that there are larger organizational structures of science that have traditionally been operated by the firmly mid- and late-mid career scientists. Societies, Journal boards, study-sections (!), Advisory Councils. Also the more mundane collaborative mechanism such as Program Projects and Centers. These have remained in the hands of the rapidly emeritizing and the demographic just below them is 1) small and 2) earlier in their independent career progression. This latter means that perhaps they are still just trying to get their own stuff rolling the way they want and are not (um..bored? stagnating? something…) and looking to do some thing bigger.


  7. “So, smart guy, what is your solution?”, I hear you ask.

    Soylent Green, motherfucker!!!!!!!!!!


  8. DJMH Says:

    What is the data on average age of hiring for assistant professors in the biomedical sciences? If it’s, say, 38–and I would be surprised if it was much lower at R1s–then a few years later, when the start-up pile is dwindling, is the time that asst profs would apply for their first R01s. In which case, the problem isn’t NIH per se, it’s the shortage of faculty positions and accompanying advanced age of new hires.

    Of course, 42 IS the answer to life, the universe, and everything. So maybe they’re on to something there.


  9. bsci Says:

    Look at the histograms from the link above: http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2012/02/13/age-distribution-of-nih-principal-investigators-and-medical-school-faculty/

    In 1980, the distribution was skewed positive so that slightly more <36 people had grants and very few people over the age of 65. The histogram PEAKED slightly before age 40 in 1980. Looking at those plots, a graph of the % under age 41 would be even more dramatic than under age 36. That was a system where many more people were given the chance to succeed as PIs and fewer were able to make a full career purely as NIH funded PIs (More ended up leaning on hard money teaching from universities? Solo research on university hard money was possible?).

    Now the age distribution is much flatter from the 40's to 60's & it looks like, if you got into the system, you're much more likely to stay there. I'm not sure that's great for continued innovation.


  10. Physician Scientist Says:

    The rock chalk comments show a potential bias from those older profs against PIs who got their R01’s in the last 6 years (when the NI status began). I wonder how those R01’s are faring in renewal. My own experience at our university is that first R01 renewals from asst/assoc. profs who got their R01’s under NI status (regardless of whether they needed it or not) are being hammered despite good work/productivity during the funding period.


  11. drugmonkey Says:

    first R01 renewals from asst/assoc. profs who got their R01’s under NI status (regardless of whether they needed it or not) are being hammered despite good work/productivity during the funding period.

    Yeah, Welcome to the Big Leagues. Seriously, everyone up to the field luminary level gets “hammered despite good work” these days….

    IMO, of course.


  12. drugmonkey Says:

    In which case, the problem isn’t NIH per se,

    That depends on how you look at it, now doesn’t it?

    The NIH has, through their approach to peer review, been perpetuating a self-congratulatory back slapping system in which those who are on the inside* perpetuate those just like themselves and hoard all the R01 cheese. It is no wonder that those viewed as likely to be most prepared for a successful career obtaining the cheese are the rapidly aging.

    The potential for sustained funding is looming ever larger in the minds of hiring committees the way I hear it.

    My bet is that if the NIH took significant strides in removing the disadvantage that currently adheres to the youthful, the University departments would start seeing things a little differently.

    *and yes, technically that might mean me. as I say elsewhere if people only have solutions that always benefit themselves in this whole debacle, one should cast a skeptical eye.


  13. Physician Scientist Says:

    I should have added to my earlier comment that on study section, I feel like I’ve been seeing 2nd-3rd renewals score better than 1st renewals and at my institution, this appears to be the case as well. What I’m not sure about is whether this has always been the case or not.


  14. […] Drug Monkey. I just puked in my mouth a […]


  15. […] but a tiny slice of the NIH-wide pool of PIs. And the 2004-06 window is just one point along the long trendline that we were just discussing. Still, it reflected the situation in one IC right at the time the NIH […]


  16. qaz Says:

    The over-66 graph is the $##%^* baby-boom generation. All of the graphs for the last four decades have been messed up by the %$#@% baby-boomers. Yeah, in 1980 most of the researchers were younger than 36, 1980 minus 36 = 1944. Now, in 2012, there’s an increase in researchers older than 66, 2012 minus 66 = 1946. Do the math, MF!

    We’re spending a huge amount of time assuming the problem is with NIH, while the problem is simply demographics.

    That being said, I agree with most of what DM says on this issue – it is criminal and stupid that study sections don’t have assistant professors. In my experience, assistant professors do the BEST jobs at review because they are the most conscientious about doing a good job. And, as is well known, experience on study section is the best way to learn how to write grants. I agree that NIH needs to kick the universities in the a$$ to put hard-money on the table and stop trying to live off the NIH gravy train. We’re about to have a big fight in my department about whether to write into the tenure document that a person must have a federal grant to get tenure. (Not an unwritten rule, but a written one!) [It’s a stupid idea. What if someone is a scion of some rich billionaire family? What if someone wins the lottery or does theoretical research that doesn’t need a lot of money to make progress? This will be a fight. We’ll see how it plays out.] And I WHOLE-HEARTEDLY agree that the real problem is the mid-range scientists who are not in the $#%@#$% baby-boom and are not getting any ESI/NI/K99-R00 help.

    But the demographic change in the proportion of researchers younger than 36 or older than 66 is just the %$$%% baby-boom.


  17. bsci Says:

    qaz, You’re wrong on this one. The demographic correction is not the total population in each age group. It’s the total number of PhDs by age (assuming most NIH funded PIs have PhDs). The number of PhDs per year has nearly doubled since 1980. See:http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf11316/content.cfm?pub_id=4062&id=2
    Science & engineering PhDs peaked in 1973 at 19.373, hit a local minima of 17,775 in 1980 and grew to 32,827 by 2008. (See table 1 at the above link)

    For just the biological sciences, the 1973, 1980, and 2008 numbers are: 3,649, 3,803, and 7,793.

    MDs also get NIH grants, but I couldn’t find those #’s & I doubt the change in #’s of MDs during the baby boom would be remotely enough to explain the grant differences.

    There is a real demographic effect that baby boomers aren’t retiring like past generations & that makes more people compete for grants, but we also have twice as many grants now have over 30% more PIs supported on NIH grants, which could have addressed part of this issue.


  18. Chebag Says:

    Maybe GenX, Y and the Millenials are just slackers compared to the Baby Boomers who single-generationally reshaped this world? Did you whiny kids ever consider that the NIH Grant distribution does in fact represent the best scientists?


  19. […] Updating the age of first NIH R01 award trends: Flatlining Highest Rates Ever Recorded of Multi-Drug-Resistant TB Leak Offers Glimpse of Campaign Against Climate Science Exploring the Sourdoughome A response to one Elsevier employee, and an open letter to the rest […]


  20. HennaHonu Says:

    I may have missed it in a previous post, but is there information on the age distribution of all applicants? Maybe the question we should be asking is what percentage of each career stage should be getting awards. I would be interested in seeing how the distribution of awards to each career stage has changed over time.


  21. DrugMonkey Says:

    From my limited attention to NIH matters, HH, I find that the fate of the *unsuccessful* applicant is one of the hardest things to understand.

    I want to know things such as how many apply once and are never seen again, how many apply repeatedly (and are never seen again), how many succeed after X, Y or Z submissions, etc.

    I tend to assume that the per-PI success rates might actually look a little more positive and can’t figure out why the NIH doesn’t trumpet those numbers more loudly….


  22. The Truth Hurts Says:

    Simple solution, hard to implement. Requires renouncing one of the lamest policies created by the BB’s: Political Correctness

    1. Acknowledge that people over the age of 65 have significantly less energy then those under 35. We are all biologists, can we not accept that, or would that be too offensive for poor old guys feelings?

    If you are over 65, 1 Ro1 only, and that’s it. Keep doing your bread and butter, but no more army of post-doc’s/grad students/perma techs to study the role of the N-terminal domain of your protein of interest in your 25 year old functional assay. No convincing the young HHMI investigator down the hall to get you a crystal structure of your protein for you, which you can subsequently leverage into Nature because you know the editors.

    If you can’t run your lab with 1-2 Ro1’s, get the fuck out of this business… now! Retire, collect your SS, and let someone younger have your job. You don’t belong anymore. As a scientist and a taxpayer, I am fricking tired of paying old established PI’s to be upper level executives flying around the world inviting each other to give seminars, while watching them do a shitty job lecturing at home. Tired. Frustrated. Borderline angry.

    2. No more then 2 Ro1’s per lab.

    If you have 0 Ro1’s, you compete only against people with 0 Ro1’s.

    If you have 1, you compete with people who have 1.

    If you have 2, stop sending in grants. Less work for you, less work for NIH, less work for everyone.

    Stop sitting in your office spinning your stories, go in your mf’ing lab, pick up a pipetteman and learn a fricking technique. Train your students. Read more papers, from front to fucking back. Teach more. Think of ways to improve your department /university/community. Something!

    Please, if your science is that fucking good that your lab deserves 3, 4, 5, 10 RO1’s, then go out and convince some rich hedge-fund managers sitting on billions in capital gains to lend you money for a start up, so you can take your fricking awesome science and actually help improve clinical outcomes for joe-sixpack taxpayers.

    If you aren’t willing to take that risk, then maybe that is telling you something about how much you believe in your own work??? But no, instead we should let the taxpayer fund it, because who cares right? It’s only 14+ trillion in National Debt and if after 5 years you haven’t produced anything meaningful or reproducible, who cares right? Just send in another grant, invite people from your carefully targeted study section to give seminars using $$$ from your current Ro1’s, annoy the crap out of your PO and yell the whole time that you are being subjected to age-discrimination because new PI who can’t get an Ro1 after 15 attempts and is about to lose his/her whole career is interfering with you getting your 4th.

    Truth hurts.


  23. Chebag Says:

    If the oldsters are so washed up, why are you complaining? You should be able to outs core them going away like Secretariat….

    Maybe you need to step up your game if you can’t get past triage in 15 attempts?


  24. shenyang Says:

    Add the emeritus professor PI who has an active R01 running for almost 30 years!!!!!!!! Then couple that with his colleague senior collaborator PI who has a few (5 R01’s) and is mighty slick enough to redistribute funds by relinquishing 2 of his R01’s to another PI under his lab so it makes him look like he’s down to 3 R01’s. Meanwhile, the senior PI’s are flying around the globe taking the pie of success while his “junior PI’s” are hard at work. Call that the current State of the NIH.


  25. Senior Scientist Says:

    This discussion thread sums up the problem. GenX and GenY seem to think you deserve “your share” of R01 funding regardless of the quality of your work. As one of those hateful Boomers you whine so much about, I recall a loooong and highly underpaid apprenticeship in a senior investigator’s NIH-funded center before anyone even considered the notion that I would or should write an independent R01. But you kids? You think you should have it RIGHT NOW because you really, really WANT it RIGHT NOW, quality be damned. And when you don’t get it because you did a half-assed job of writing the application, your stomp your little feet and blame it on someone else.

    Grow up, grow a pair, and grow your research program to the point that it *merits* NIH funding. When you do, those mean old boys and girls reviewing your application will likely, quite gladly, give it a fundable score.


  26. […] Via Drug Monkey. I just puked in my mouth a […]


  27. Wow! Superbly interesting piece. We are book-marking the particular web site as soon as possible. Gratitude!


  28. […] with grant applications tend to be beyond the early researcher stage. In fact, the average age of first success in schemes like the NIH have been climbing for a while now. So first step, apply when you have pretty much zero games in […]


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