The "next generation of science" is at risk unless major changes are made to increase opportunities for young researchers, Johns Hopkins University President Ronald Daniels wrote in a scientific journal article published Tuesday.
Only 1 percent of National Institutes of Health grants went to researchers under the age of 36 in 2012, less than one-fourth of the share three decades earlier, Daniels wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And researchers who see such statistics — and limited opportunities for tenured faculty positions — are increasingly discouraged, he warned.
"It is not surprising that many of our youngest minds are choosing to leave their positions in academic research for careers in industry, other countries, or outside of science altogether," he wrote.
Daniels joins a chorus of science advocates that have called for reforms to reverse trends that could be sacrificing future biomedical research discoveries. To make an impact, he recommended organizing a standing body to continually review the issue and advocate for reforms.
Researchers said something needs to be done. While most who have earned doctorate degrees hope to one day have their own research labs and tenured positions, many are realizing that is a daunting goal, given increased competition for funding and fewer faculty jobs, said Carly Page, a 29-year-old post-doctoral researcher at Johns Hopkins studying staph infections in the skin.
"It makes pursuing a career in academia very daunting," said Page, who earned her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, Baltimore in 2013. "It becomes less and less appealing the more you see the actual reality."
Daniels' paper refers to a National Academy of Sciences report released in 2004 that made recommendations to improve young scientists' prospects, including new research grant awards for young scientists and improved mentoring. Despite those efforts, funding and other opportunities for young researchers have declined over the past decade, he wrote.
There has been a steady rise in the average age of scientists receiving a key type of NIH grant, known as the R01 grant, from 38 in 1980 to 45 in 2013. Only 3 percent of recipients of the R01 grants were 36 or younger in 2010, down from 18 percent in 1983, he wrote. NIH officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"The inability to staunch — if not reverse — the above trends stands as an urgent and compelling policy challenge," Daniels wrote. "The salience of scientific discovery to the future of our health, our economy, and our society is profound."
Reforms Daniels proposes include reversing an overall trend of declining NIH grants, diversifying the types of funding researchers receive so they don't have to spend as much time writing grant applications, and developing new career paths for young researchers.
Daniels was not available for an interview.
Andy Harris, who wrote an opinion article in The New York Times in October headlined "Young, Brilliant and Underfunded," said he was glad to see Daniels step forward on the issue. While he said many of the remedies are the responsibility of academia and the NIH, he pushed for language in an omnibus spending bill passed late last year that requires NIH to explore efforts to reduce the average age at which researchers first receive NIH funding. It is now 42.
"As a physician who conducted NIH-funded research before entering politics, I saw firsthand how the most innovative thinking frequently came from younger scientists," Harris, a Republican who represents Maryland's 1st District, said in a statement. "Individuals throughout the biomedical research enterprise have expressed concern for young investigators, but few solutions to the problem have been offered."
Researchers say it is young researchers who are most likely to pursue new and innovative science, given that experienced professors often have a long-held specialty. But without better prospects for funding, it will continue to be difficult for young scientists to develop niches of their own.
"What it means is there's very few people who are able to enter the system young and get funding," said Vedran Lekic, a 32-year-old geology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Without the funding, you can't succeed at all."