The NIH ESI policy was a generational screw job
August 23, 2012
As most of you know, when Science published the now-infamous graph showing that the average age of a PI when s/he received the first R01 NIH grant was 42, even the NIH realized there was a problem with the demographics of the extramural research workforce. This led to a number of initiatives, including the creation of the NIH’s first broadly available and genuine transition mechanism, the K99/R00. This was good because it incentivized University hiring committees to take a risk on a younger person. They would come with R level research grant money already in hand! It was also a mostly benign change because it was clear from the start that there were not going to be very many of these awards.
The NIH also realized (amazingly belatedly) that their “New Investigator” checkbox system was not having any effect on the age of first R01 award. Or, not a beneficial effect anyway. They realized what I had realized within two hours of the start of my first study section meeting, i.e. that the competitive NI applications were from highly experienced scientists who simply hadn’t sought funding from the NIH before. So they generated the “Early State Investigator” category of PI.
The ESI was distinguished by the time elapsed since the award of the PHD. Sounds okay, right? No more special perks for the previously NSF-, DOD- or CDC-funded established investigator. No more focus on the “New” investigator recently hired from a foreign country where she was highly experienced in extracting grant funding from that country’s NIH equivalent. Let us focus on the genuinely “new” investigator. Someone just starting their faculty appointment and needing help……uh-oh.
Problem was, there was this entire generation of scientists already in the pipeline. Waiting to transition.
The ESI program was an academic generation screw job which is why I say it is a blunder.
I’ve blogged about this before in the context of saying I don’t feel sorry for myself and people of my approximate generation who managed to make it over the transition hurdle. Those people of my approximate generation who managed to get their first grant before things really went in the toilet and are now complaining that they are stuck between ESI policies and the OldGuard really digging in their toes (facilitated by their “long term POs”). My sympathy for us is limited (but…grrrrr).
What I usually fail to talk about are those excellent scientists who, for one reason or another*, didn’t happen to get over the hurdle. Then, when they were all long past the ESI interval (and therefore asking for special extensions was kind of pointless) along comes the NIH “help” for younger investigators…but it explicitly jumped over them and said “too bad folks, we’re just going to ignore you and furthermore, we’re going to give hiring committees every reason in the world to screw you as well“.
Right? I mean would you hire someone who had the extra 5 yrs of postdoc’ing (with the productivity) over a younger someone with half-decent pubs but about 3 years of ESI time on the clock? You’d be doing your Department a serious disservice! Improved chances of your new hire getting their foot in the NIH grant door as early as possible is a major factor these days.
So, while I do like the NIH giving the Universities a reason to make faculty hires ever closer to the granting of the PhD…this method was a really brutal** way of choosing of winners and losers in the generational battle***.
*all too frequently women, all too frequently childbearing, all too frequently accommodating a slightly older academic spouse
**curious given the relative timidity of the NIH in making other dramatic changes, picking winners, etc.
**It will not surprise you in the least that I view this as yet more of the Boomers (those who run things at NIH) screwing the GenXers for whom they have zero affinity to benefit the GenY/Millenials who are their generational offspring.