The Troubling Case of the Languishing Post-Doc

By Brian Herman. Published on March 2, 2015

Biomedical researchers are training in healthy numbers, but many are finding that the transition from their first post-doctoral position to a lab of their own is taking too long, or not happening at all.

It’s a troubling development – with stark implications of American innovation — that may be leading many talented young scientists to look elsewhere for employment, lured in part by high pay.

As noted in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month, demand is strong for science and math-oriented job-applicants, as employees with STEM skills can expect to earn 21 percent more than their less educated colleagues.

The longer we wait to address this issue, the more we risk losing a generation of researchers – and all the advances in medical science they would have made.

Ronald J. Daniels, President of John Hopkins University, is ringing the alarm bell. In a recent article for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he delivers the bad news: most researchers aren’t winning their first grant until they are 45 years old, compared with age 38 in 1980. In 2010, only 3 percent of researchers under the age of 36 won grants, compared with 18 percent in 1983.

In 2008, the most recent year for which data was available, only 21 percent of basic biomedical PhDs had secured tenure or tenure track academic jobs, even 6-10 years after receiving their doctorate, compared with 28 percent in 1993.

Daniels points to several factors forcing this trend. At the top of the list is more than a decade of flat federal funding for the nation’s biggest source of grant money, the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It’s a 25 percent decline in real dollars, and with less money to spend, NIH is now approving about half as many proposals as before.

The resulting competition for grants is a race that favors older scientists. As Daniels describes, senior researchers often have an “incumbency advantage” because they support applications with data acquired from prior grants. In the NIH peer-review system, they are safer bets compared to an unproven researcher.

Less federal funding also means financial pressure on universities. What grants don’t cover, universities must. As NIH dollars have decreased, the university share has been forced to compensate. Add the growing cost of biomedical research and the start-up help traditionally given to new researchers and universities are taking an even bigger hit.

In fact, according to the National Science Foundation, universities now spend more than $12 billion of their own funds on research and development, a figure that has more than doubled in the last 12 years. Of the money allotted for R&D within my own institution, the University of Minnesota, $175 million goes to financing research.

Universities cannot keep up with this ever-growing share of the funding pie. Less money means fewer and more competitive tenure-track positions, another factor encouraging universities to opt for older scientists with proven grant-winning track records.

Universities recognize the plight of young researchers and are doing what they can to direct funding their way. In January, Johns Hopkins announced $15 million in funding for two new award programs aimed at early-career researchers. But, as Daniels stated during an appearance with WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show, it’s a drop in the bucket. With NIH supporting close to $30 billion a year in grants, the solution has to be more federal funding.

“We are eating our seed corn,” American Society for Cell Biology chief Stefano Bertuzzi told USA Today when interviewed about the plight of young scientists. At the age that past scientists were doing Nobel Prize-quality work in their own labs, today’s researchers are still post-doctoral fellows. “This is fundamentally wrong.”

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