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Posted on June 23, 2015 at 5:06 AM

Earlier this year, the NIH proposed a new idea to help
sustain the biomedical research workforce through an “Emeritus Award for Senior
Researchers
” and solicited feedback from biomedical scientists
.
The idea behind the Emeritus Award was to help senior investigators transition
out of a position reliant on NIH support and to transfer the research to junior
colleagues, or to close a lab down (Kaiser, 2015). The reason for creating such
an award is to free up research money for younger and more junior researchers. But
before going into what scientists thought about the Emeritus Award, I would
like to describe the current system of research funding in the U.S.

There are several prominent papers and reports that
indicate that the biomedical research system in the U.S. is in crisis (Alberts
et al., 2014; NSF, 2014; Holleman and Gritz, 2013; NIH, 2012; Martinson, 2011;
Martinson, 2007). I just gave a lecture a few months back at a Career Symposium
at my college to biomedical graduate students. The symposium had a panel of biomedical
science trained speakers discuss alternate careers for biomedical students. My
presentation discussed my career in the federal public service as a science
policy analyst and my current position as an academic bioethicist. But before
beginning discussion into my career transition outside biomedical science, I
decided to present some interesting data to the students which forms the basis
for why NIH proposed the Emeritus Award. Since the doubling of the NIH budget
around 2002/3, the success rates of obtaining research grants have decreased
from roughly 25-33% to about 14-17%. This is due to a host of reasons. There is
an influx of doctoral level researchers that are supported through research
grants instead of salary awards, the number of post-doctoral fellows has also
increased and are longer in duration, the success rate for obtaining tenure or
tenure track Assistant Professor positions have become increasingly sparse, and
the mean age of first-time R01 grant winners has risen from 37 years in 1980 to
42 years in 2013 (NIH, 2012). Life looks a bit dismal to young graduate
students and it does not look too great for me either. To remedy this
situation, the NIH has made efforts to bolster more funding to younger
scientists by giving them bonus points if they are a first time R01 applicant
or even having early stage investigators sit on NIH review panels. But the success
of such policies and programs has been mixed (Deng, 2015). It is based on this
data why the NIH has developed the Emeritus Award.

Sally Rock’s (Deputy Director of Extramural Research,
NIH) famous
Rock Talk blog has
received hundreds of comments on the Emeritus Award
.
Some commented that this is just “another cash source for basically
semi-retired PI’s who are waiting a few more years for pension and retirement
to accumulate” (Kaiser, 2015) while others felt that a new mechanism is not
necessary and is unlikely to achieve its goal. Some commented that “not
everyone becomes non-productive on his/her 65th birthday” (Kaiser, 2015) and
others state that such an award is testament to the fact that the NIH favors
established researchers (Deng, 2015). Some commentators questioned why a novel
mechanism is actually necessary because a senior researcher can transfer their
grant to junior scientists already through existing channels (Deng, 2015).
Others however thought the Emeritus Award wasn’t such a bad idea. One person
commented that “I took this idea as a way to gently, legally ease senior folks
into taking retirement” (Kaiser, 2015).

Yet despite NIH’s efforts to strive for fairness and attempt
to offer greater opportunities to secure funds for junior researchers, the
entire system requires an overhaul. Some call for a reduction in the number of
doctoral research workforce (Martinson, 2011) while others call for broadening
the career paths for young researchers, having graduate students and fellows
being supported by training grants or fellowship awards instead of research
grants, and having universities and colleges create more staff scientist
positions (Alberts et al., 2014). The current biomedical research system is currently
unsustainable and competition is fierce for the rewards of science. Pouring
more money into NIH funding is unlikely to solve the problem and more likely to
continue to perpetuate the current climate. I think all scientists, institution
leaders, and leaders of major funding agencies need to think and devise ways in
order to maintain the biomedical research environment.

References:

Alberts B, Kirschner MW, Tilghman S, Varmus H. 2014. Rescuing US biomedical research from
its systemic flaws.
Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 111:5773-7. 

Deng B. 2015. NIH ponders ‘emeritus grants.’ Nature 518: 146-7.

Holleman W. and Gritz ER. 2013. Biomedical burnout. Nature 500:613-14.

Kaiser J. 2015. NIH proposal to create grant for aging
scientists hit a nerve. Science DOI:
10.1126/science.aaa7827. http://news.sciencemag.org/funding/2015/02/nih-proposal-create-grant-aging-scientists-hits-nerve?utm_campaign=email-news-latest&utm_src=email

Martinson BC. 2011. The academic birth rate. EMBO Reports 12:758-62.

Martinson BC. 2007. Universities and the money fix. Nature 449:141-2.

NIH-A Working Group of the Advisory Committee to the
Director. 2012. Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report.
http://acd.od.nih.gov/biomedical_research_wgreport.pdf

National Science Foundation. 2014. Science &
Engineering Indicators. http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind14/

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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