I previously noted a new website (brokenpipeline.org) and glossy report on the career "pipeline" problem currently experienced by biomedical research science in the US. This report catalyzed more discussion in the blogosphere on the issue (SciGuy, Jonathan Gitlin, Greg Laden, Dr. Free-Ride; Update 3/13/08: Orac, Harvard Science on a related Congressional hearing, The Neurocritic, Chris Seper). My readers from the past year will recall that I've discussed these issues at some length.
My readers will also recall that I have some pointed views on what I see as cultural biases against young investigators at the stage of grant review that have little (specifically) to do with the amount of money available. That is today's topic for discussion.
The theme of the broken pipeline analysis starts with the data-backed observations that larger and larger fractions of the NIH grant money are going to older and older investigators. One example, albeit a bit dated, is the following which shows the percentage of NIH research awards by age cohort from 1980-2003.
This PDF is available from the National Academies
Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Investigators in Biomedical
Research Committee on Bridges to Independence: Identifying Opportunities for and Challenges to Fostering Independence of Young Investigators in the Life Sciences, National Research Council
ISBN: 0-309-54964-7, 138 pages, 6 x 9, (2005)
Furthermore the average age of various career transition measures such as initial independent appointment, major NIH grant award, etc are increasing, see next figure. Thus, the hard data suggest that our research force is getting older.
One of the things these figures also point out to me is that these longstanding trends are not directly tied to the "recent" NIH funding woes, nor to my eye to the approximately 10-yr cycle of NIH boom / bust that has been going on since (at least ) the early 70s. Does any of this sound familiar? (Women in science bonus here)
Where we start getting into punditry is what the graying of science means for the future state of our scientific research force, particularly the independent researcher (aka, Professor, Principal Investigator, Lab Head, Big Cheez, etc) that is really the prime driving force, for want of a better term. (No, not the backbone, that would be the techs. Nor the muscle for the really heavy lifting, that would be the postdocs and grad students.) The committed professional cadre moving forward with the expectation that this will be their primary career for their working life.
There are a number of primary concerns as I see them. First, that the great ideas and innovations of the best and the brightest scientists of the next immediate generation (i.e., exiting the pipeline) will be lost. Second, that the dismal career prospects are actively discouraging the best and the brightest in the next and succeeding generations from even trying to pursue the career. Third the twin bubbles represented by the expansion of academia in the 60s and 70s and by the Boomers (generically) will exit science in rapid order. Even if there is a thin cadre of the best and brightest of the next generation(s) left, these individuals will not have received the training necessary for true "replacement" of the geezers. This latter is a subtle point, perhaps. It reflects my view of science careers as gradually expanding the size and scope of the research a scientist oversees and influences. To be concrete, we can think about the experience necessary for heading large-scale collaborative projects such as Centers and Program Projects.
Without belaboring points that I've made before, hopefully you are starting to see that at least one major "pipeline" problem is more of the distribution of grants, jobs and responsibilities within any given pool of research funding rather than the overall level of funding. Whether the NIH is flush or not, the reasons for wanting to keep a relatively smooth distribution of funding across the age distributions are the same.
This brings me back around to the question of cultural practices.
NIH Director Elias Zerhouni was quoted in The Cancer Letter (V34No9; h/t Abel) as saying: "in 2005, NIH funded 1,683 new investigators but the next year the number dropped to 1,353. That's why last year we agreed to maintain a floor of about 1,523 new investigators per year." (This is consistent with my memory of a ppt slide in one NIH presentation or another which I've lost track of...anyone?)
The point is this. The "NIH", meaning the Program staff of NIH, accomplished this by means of overturning the results of initial peer review! They had to reach down and pull up New Investigator grants out of the review order. Other NIH ICs are making their policies explicit by setting their funding lines for New Investigator grants at a higher percentile (worse score). Why are they doing this? Well, implicitly, they are saying that initial peer review is getting the evaluation of applications wrong. That there are biases creeping into the process that are preventing otherwise meritorious proposals from younger scientists from being treated fairly. This, in my view, is what the personal stories on the BrokenPipeline glossy report are supposed to be telling us as well.
I cannot emphasize enough the degree to which study section behavior is biased for the established investigator. I've been over the arguments in the past and will re-state that this is not always overtly pernicious behavior. It results from cultural evolution, mores and expectations. Natural group dynamics. Like affiliating with like. Granfalloonery and bunny hopping.
To head off common rebuttal, yes, on average the New Investigator application is not as good as the well-established investigator application. On many grounds from the grantspersonship to the actual science. Of course. I am not talking about this. I object to what I see as the few highly meritorious applications from New Investigators not receiving that extra boost (necessary for actual funding) that is credited to run-of-the-mill or even poorly presented proposals from investigators with an established track record. To supposedly objective criteria like "productivity" being applied unfairly (I think one should divide the number of papers by the number of grants or total support dollars, personally). Etc. It is this tendency, IMO, that results in the continuing graying of the PI pool. Trends that much NIH hot air and establishment of new funding mechanisms have done nothing to halt over the past three or four decades. I would argue that this is because they refuse to address the inevitable bias inherent in the way study sections are constituted.
My solution is, as my usual readers are aware, the traditional remedy for bias. To allow competing biases equal voice in the hopes that this reduces the influence of any given bias. The Center for Scientific Review strives very hard for gender, geographic, institutional-type and subfield representation in review.
Guess which grouping factor they explicitly bias against representing? And guess what consistent line-item recommendation is demanded by "stake holder" input to the draft report on the Peer Review Self-Study?
This is why my proposal is that study sections should strive to be representative of the age of the applicant pool just as much as they strive to be representative of other factors such as gender, geographic region and the like.