Phased Retirement via NIH Mechanism? What?

December 6, 2013

An article in the CHE by Paul Basken was brought to my attention because of the comments of Francis Collins regarding an emphasis on the “people, not projects” side of the equation. But something else drew my eye, way down the page, because I hadn’t heard of it before.

One panel member, Shirley M. Tilghman, a molecular biologist who is a former president of Princeton University, said one way to clear NIH resources for younger researchers would be a grant that would pay senior researchers to wind down their labs and distribute their resources to others in return for a commitment to seek no more NIH money.

She referred to it as a “terminal grant,” though conceded a different term would likely be necessary to make it more palatable.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has a similar program, in which it phases out grantees over a five-year period. The program is too new for a deep analysis, though it appears well received by scientists, said Robert T. Tjian, president of Hughes. It’s “a graceful and productive way for scientists to plan their future involvement in research and teaching as they approach the end of a natural cycle in a scientific life,” said Mr. Tjian, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Wow. Seems okay on the face of it. I see a fair number of people grumbling about how they are going to retire but they still keep putting in the proposals. From a psychological perspective it might work to have them commit to an end date five years away, rather than, saying “Pack it in RIGHT NOW”. Over the next five years maybe that would have a net effect? Seems worth a try, maybe?

I do wonder how this could possibly work in the NIH system on a practical basis. I mean, how can you hold the PI to his or her commitment to stop submitting any grants? How can you keep them from being a significant Investigator on a project for which they are not the PI? The University submits the grants, after all.

But if we suppose it *can* work, is this the best solution? Wouldn’t it be better to just stop funding them? To stop extending any Programmatic pickups to PIs over a certain age? Or to, say, throw down a policy refusing any applications for anything beyond year 20 of a given project? Wouldn’t this, in the end, get rid of more people than offering all of them a Parachute Grant?

And if the plan is to “wind down” a person’s career…..doesn’t this totally fly in the face of the formal structure of the NIH, i.e. that the grant is based on a project, not a person? Are we talking a reverse K99/R00 that starts off with an independent research phase and then ends up as an emeritus fellowship that pays the salary and nothing else for a few years*? Or perhaps we’re talking a project that has to be taken over by a younger PI in years 2-5?

I doubt this will get much traction but if it does, it will be fascinating to see all the proposals for how it should work. I’m sure a few of you will have a go at it in the comments…..
*Paying the salary of an Emeritus Professor to sort of wander around the Department helping out has some resonance with my proposal for Staff Scientist Fellowships, I note. I am not entirely dismissing it as valueless.

25 Responses to “Phased Retirement via NIH Mechanism? What?”

  1. old grantee Says:


    Because the resources have become too limited to keep funding established investigators (and some of them very abundantly) into their very late 70s and, at the same time, raise a new generation of scientists and sustain those in the mid-career state, something needs to be done.

    1. Compulsory 4-yrs terminal grant at 66 so that the investigator ends the “natural NIH-GRANT funding cycle” to pass the “resources torch” to her/his younger peers. No more grant applications to be accepted at NIH for this pool of investigators. The natural cycle in a scientific life might or might not arrive or coincide with the “natural NIH-Grant funding cycle” and that is very much depending on each individual. The role of Emeritus Professor willing to accompany younger peers in their scientific journey by mentoring, covering for them in their teaching responsibilities, consultant services etc. is a factual opportunity to pursue scientific engagement during the last phase of a professional career. Up until now, we Emeritus Professors can very well live on our Pensions without additional salary. I am not sure if the same would be true for the upcoming generations.
    2. The idea of giving a project a 20 yr life, to release resources, may not work because people in their 70s will continue to submit grants to replace the ended 20 yr (completed).


  2. icearoni Says:

    This is EXACTLY what my post-doc mentor wants to do. He would love to wind it down and pass the torch to the very capable junior faculty surrounding him, but the NIH does not provide an easy route for this. He is worried that his (productive and unique) lab is going to come to a screeching halt if he retires, and that he will leave his 3 staff scientists unemployed because the NIH won’t want to give the funding to junior profs when he’s not PI on the grants anymore. Although we would miss him terribly, the work would continue just fine without him precisely because he has done such an amazing job and values his loyal staff and protégées so much. He is trying so hard to promote junior people, and trying to pass the baton. It is the NIH that is preventing him from doing this more effectively.

    He is a senior scientist mother hen who doesn’t want to slip, who will never let himself slip, and who wants to get out of the way to let the next generation shine, but is prevented from doing so because he is (legitimately!) worried that all his chicks will be left starving out in the rain when he retires.


  3. drugmonkey Says:

    There are ways to do it but yeah, it is uncertain if the newbs can flourish.

    ..but when is this not true?

    Why should grant funding be hereditary?


  4. old grantee Says:


    i have a different experience on that. I had a colleague who decided to move to England and he left her 2-R01s to the 2 junior assistant professors in the department. There was no problem, as far as I know. But that was 10 years ago. Maybe now NIH is screwing up more than helping out.


  5. Dave Says:

    The NIH will always favor a passive approach, so this is all nonsense. But I’ll bit anyway…..

    What happened to good old fashioned mentoring? Is it not the responsibility of senior PIs to get their faculty to a position where they are competitive for funding? Hand-outs or “passing-the-torch” is surely not a good long term strategy. If you cut off my chiefs funding at 66, you would have definitely robbed him of some of his most productive years. This is not only stupid, it seems to be flat-out discriminatory.


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    I have always heard of Program Staff being agreeable to PI switches in mid-stream. I think the comment here is probably conflating resistance on the part of study sections doing competitive review with Program? No?


  7. drugmonkey Says:


    If you won’t let a young investigator transition and win a R01 until she is 43, you are robbing her of at least 10 of the most productive years of her life.

    That, my friend, is what the system is doing right now. Why is your chief more deserving?


  8. drugmonkey Says:

    If you won’t let the 45-50 yr old flourish with easily obtained grant money you are likewise robbing *her* of THE most productive years. The 66 yr old had his shot, time to move aside.


  9. old grantee Says:


    It surely seems stupid to you because you’re likely enjoying no major funding problems. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re much better than researchers having a hard time in getting their grants. It would be discriminatory if there were no young people being left out and without opportunity in biomedical research. Those who have reached 66 have had their chance.


  10. drugmonkey Says:

    Worth revisiting graphs like these…

    Note how the newbs were frozen out of the full benefit of the doubling? And note that in 2007 the only reason for the radical recovery to approximate experienced investigator success rates was the fact that NIH threw down policy to fund ESI and NI applications out of order of the review.


  11. miko Says:

    These first wave boomers aren’t going to give up one fucking thing voluntarily. I can’t believe this cajoling phase-out bullshit. Or that we would even considering caring about their wishes to anoint their own successors.

    And I want an NIH director advised by someone…anyone…under 50.


  12. qaz Says:

    Great, now they’re paying the baby boomers to get out of the way for their kids to take their spots.

    One more proof that we were the lost generation.


  13. DJMH Says:

    I don’t think it’s such a bad idea. Once you acknowledge that a, we are in the US so can’t force age based retirement, and b, boomers are, like most people in power, too selfish and satisfied to exit spontaneously, I bet the numbers look good if you can phase people out like this even just a couple of years sooner than they would do otherwise.

    Distributing equipment to local labs seems like a good idea too. This has nothing to do with anointing junior faculty as some people seem to be assuming, could just be as simple as “here are a bunch of functional pipettes, see you later.”


  14. drugmonkey Says:

    I think the legacy issue described by icearoni is more common than you think, DJMH. It is an impulse, subconscious or not, for many rapidly emeritising scientists.


  15. eeke Says:

    How could this “passing the torch” thing not be just a way of keeping the old boy’s network alive? That is the only thing I’d be opposed to – allowing an old crusty guy (and most of them ARE guys) to hand-pick someone from his lab to carry on. I don’t see how that would even be acceptable to the rest of the academic department.


  16. The Other Dave Says:

    Awesome. A special grant for being old and not-so-productive anymore. What a freaking circle jerk.


  17. DJMH Says:

    But I don’t see how this mechanism works to produce junior BSDs, unless you think equipment = anointing.


  18. observer Says:

    Just came across “This town: two parties and a funeral plus..” by Leibovich which I haven’t read it yet but heard comments on it. If the analysis is true, and there are many indications that it is, I wonder if this bipartisan intentional sabotage for the sake of money and profit by the lobbies, is somehow extending to the NIH and the inability to avert some of the policies that are being so damaging for science and the future of biomedical research in the US. Any thoughts on it?


  19. fjordmaster Says:

    Is the target demographic of a “wind-down” grant large enough for this to make a difference in funding? It seems to me that older grantees that continue to submit successful grant applications enjoy running a lab and, without a hard retirement age, will continue until they are no longer able to secure funding.

    I assume the positive reception of the HHMI program is due to the fact that these researchers are not forced to close their lab and they would most likely be more successful than most at winning non-HHMI funding. Additionally, as this article from Penn Medicine points out, there is substantial pressure associated with being an HHMI Investigator and losing this status may actually have positive psychological benefits.

    Click to access Penn%20Medicine_2010_01-10-hhmi.pdf


  20. SteveTodd Says:

    They should set up a mechanism where people of any age can win the privilege of never asking the NIH for money again.


  21. Ola Says:

    I would be against 20-year cap on grants, but that’s only because I’m a little over 10 years into a grant now, I don’t relish the thought of this particular line of research being exhausted in 2023, with me aged 50 (I got my first R01 very early). And yes I realize this falls into the classic “de-fund that guy over there, fund meeeeeee!” trap.

    The parachute grant sounds like a neat idea, and implementing it in the early 60s so you’re all done by 65 seems like it could be palatable for the current generation of mid-term to oldie scientists. However, long term it could be a problem…. if you get your first R01 at 42 (average) and you’re expected to parachute in your early 60s, that would give the current generation of young ‘uns about 20 years of total funding. So, it’s a stop-gap measure to deal with the current crunch, but if it gets set in stone (as many stop-gap measures do) without dealing with the time-to-first-R01 problem, then it could be a disaster.


  22. Lee Says:

    @SteveTodd I thought that was an R37… Just an interesting tidbit, if you search for R37s then arrange by year, some of those grants on in their 40+ year.


  23. isabel Says:

    ” The 66 yr old had his shot, time to move aside.” anti-discrimination laws are so inconvenient, aren’t they?

    “…. if you get your first R01 at 42 (average) and you’re expected to parachute in your early 60s, that would give the current generation of young ‘uns about 20 years of total funding”

    I was think the same thing. And what about those of us who got PhDs as a second career and started late? Or women who took time off to have kids, and are going to live longer and face more years of retirement in any case?

    Why are older people getting more awards in the first place if they are less innovative? NIH playing it safe? Maybe focus on the real problem instead of how you can discriminate against people- telling them to go off and die or whatever.


  24. bsci Says:

    The core line of reasoning here misses the big underlying issue. Yes, there are >60-year-olds that might be considering retirement, and having fewer of them will free resources for younger PIs, but they’re still a fraction of the grants. If you want to look at what age ranges have a disproportionate number of grants, it’s the PIs who got their first RO1 during the NIH budget doubling and are now aged 45-55 and often doing great science. Retirement incentives aren’t going to make these researchers disappear (and there’s no quality-of-science reason why they should disappear). Until this bolus of PIs reaches retirement age in 10-20 more years (or the NIH budget significant increases), everyone else is going to be squeezed.
    You can see these distributions at: and a link to the raw data is in the comments.


  25. Eli Rabett Says:

    So Eli has a program manager friend at NSF who wants to fund FART grants. Final Awards for Research and Teaching.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: