The NIH Director, Francis Collins, was speaking to Congress this week and was widely quoted as lamenting the fate of junior scientists. As per this Sam Stein bit in HuffPo:
“This is the issue that wakes me up at night when I try to contemplate the future of where biomedical research can go in the United States,” Collins said. “They are finding themselves in a situation that is the least supportive of that vision in 50 years. They look ahead of them and see the more senior scientists struggling to keep their labs going and suffering rejection after rejection of grants that previously would have been supportive. And they wonder, 'Do we really want to sign up for that?' And many of them, regrettably, are making the decision to walk away.”
Obviously he is talking about trainees and perhaps the very newest of assistant professors, aka ESI qualified NIH applicants.
This goes along with a continued trend from the NIH. To wring their collective hands over those who are in their mid to late 30s and younger. To take some steps to help them out, most definitively with special paylines for the Early Stage Investigators who must be no more than 10 years away from the PhD award. To nod sagely about "eating our seed corn" as if they have the slightest clue what that might mean and whether it actually applies here (it doesn't).
It ignores another trend from the NIH, i.e. working busily to shore up the ability of the oldest guard of scientists to remain funded. You know about the Emeritus award they are considering. You have observed how well the very oldest slice of our PI applicant pool is treated at study section. And you have seen how NIGMS, the IC most serious about this workforce stability stuff*, put the oldsters at the front of the line with their MIRA initiative. Of course, the second in line (and in fact the only ones in line) for this little MIRA project are, you guessed it, ESIs.
We plan to issue a MIRA funding opportunity for early stage investigators as quickly as possible. We hope the first application due date will be sometime this summer.
As per usual, the demographic of the mid-career investigator is overlooked.
One of the comments on the NIGMS MIRA post is heart breaking and incredibly truthful. BioScientist wrote:
However, I have genuine concerns about the idea to roll it out first to either well-funded labs or early stage investigators. From what I can see, where it is most needed is in mid-career labs that do not have multiple R01’s, which in many cases are imploding in the present environment. These are the PI’s who are writing 10 grants to get 1 funded right now. The well-funded empires are doing just fine, and I have not found the PI’s of such labs to be the egalitarian types would would give up a dime so that someone else could keep a lab running.
For ESI’s, this could be an interesting experiment in how to launch successful careers. Many of us who endured the system of the last decade are discouraged and demoralized. Personally, I will never live up to my scientific potential after so many years of wasting time on failed proposals and preliminary results for projects that were never funded.
emphasis added. As if I have to do so.
Do you wonder why the current greybearded and silver haired people who remain powerful in science are so keen to cry over the poor, poor Millennial generation of scientists and wring their hands over the future of science, all the while doing nothing about the present of science?
Because the Boomers (and a few years' worth of pre-War folks) cannot acknowledge what they have done to the Gen X scientists. Some of the charges are as follows.
1) Extended graduate school training from 4 years to 6+. Sure they used all sorts of very truthy sounding excuses about mastering different domains, getting those three publications in CNS journals, the collaborative nature of vertically ascending science, etc. But they accomplished it...and their own successes prove it unneeded.
2) Extended postdoctoral "training". The moved us from where even two years as a postdoc prior to professorial appointment was slightly suspicious (in the early to mid 1970s) to a situation in which two sequential 3-5 year postdocs are viewed as the necessary minimum (just a few years ago, prior to the ESI foofraw). The oldest generation oversaw this.
3) Even during the NIH doubling, they grabbed all the grants and kept beating up the newly appointed GenX scientists with Stock Critiques, sent them around the airport traffic pattern in endless revisions and with "good scores" that were clearly unfundable. Anything to delay entry and preserve their expanding empires.
3) The R29 FIRST was dismantled** but was replaced by a NI check box. It supposedly took the oldster power brokers 10 years to realize was to the benefit of, you guessed it, themselves. I.e. those highly established scientists that simply didn't have NIH funding yet. It took me about 3 hours of my first study section meeting to see this.
4) ...aaaand what do you know? By the time the old guard power brokers "realized" this NI problem, they were able to fix it with a time-limited ESI designation tagged to the time of PhD award, instead of the time of Asst Prof appointment. This conveniently skipped right over the Gen X scientists.
So what did this accomplish? Well, on the trainee end of the screw-job this just meant more time in which a venerated or even hard charging mid career lab head could benefit from the intellectual contributions of the Gen X scientists. Pretty much like intellectual vampires. The crediting system whereby author lines expanded and the senior author got all the glory was refined and elaborated from the 1990s through the Naughties as the NIH budget doubled. The number of "postdocs" supported on research grants soared through the roof. And the new models, conceptual breakthroughs and new theoretical approaches continued to give subsequent grant largesse and subsequent paper / finding laurels to the lab head. While the Gen X scientists continued as postdocs, or were shelled out of the system or manged to get a job but couldn't get funded very easily.
I was there. I know who did the actual work in the labs in my fields of interest. I know the way a finding or paper or model resulted in the lab head having copious funding for a decade and a half, verging on two decades now. I know which of those scientists of my generation failed to make it big. There are a lot of them that will never achieve their promise. A lot who had to bail entirely on the career after what would have been a career-making paper as a trainee, if they were just a generation older. I can point to very few of the Gen X people in my fields of closest interest who have hit mid career with anything like the funding, verve and accomplishment of even some of the more, shall we say, pedestrian*** members of the generation just prior to mine****. Actually, come to think of it, I am hard pressed to point to a single one.
I am not suggesting the older folks who benefited had no right to do so. I am not saying they didn't deserve any credit, nor am I claiming they didn't contribute intellectually.
I am saying that they (as a generation) arranged things so that they got ALL OF the credit and benefit of the collaborative breakthroughs. And this is not right. They did not suffer a similar fate at the hands of their more-senior colleagues because times were very different. Expansive. Lab sizes were smaller and the trainees were more consistently encouraged to fly away and shine on their own. This is what happened through the 70s and 80s when they were transitioning. And yet they have the nerve to call us riff raff. To question our commitment to science in oh so many ways. To continue to credit themselves for breakthroughs and advances that rested on the intellectual labors of a younger generation that they now disparage.
Some of us are surviving. Yes. This is obvious. Some of us are thriving. Some of us squeaking by on fumes and prayers.
Some Most of us yo-yo between these extremes.
As the comment said, however, we will never reach our potential as scientists. Not in the way we witnessed the generation or two before us reach theirs. Not as a generation and not as the vast majority of individuals. Ever. It cannot be recovered.
Do you wonder why we are angry at each and every NIH initiative that comes down the pike that is explicitly designed to skip over our generation of scientists, yet again?
This is why.
*yeah. This is as good as it gets.
**for good reason, it had problems
***to be clear, I count myself in this category
****Who managed to get past the noob-abuse and hazing ritual juuuuuuust as the doubling hit stride. This is the generation that managed to land the last few R29s, for reference*****.
*****In truth, those who were never eligible for either R29 or ESI designation makes a much better and tighter demarcation than Gen X versus the Boomers and Millennials when it comes to this stuff. But it is pretty damn inside baseball to use such terms....
Related Reading: Does anybody want to be president? Anyone?