President’s Blog – March, 2012

Posted on March 14, 2012

Today I am writing about careers and funding. Or, as one might say, the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything.  Which indeed turns out to be 42.

Last month, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), who are the main research funding agency in the U.S., released some interesting data on the funding of young investigators (  As you may know, in the past decades it has become more and more difficult for young investigators to get research grants.  The NIH has therefore put in place several initiatives to give young and new investigators an advantage.  Last month’s report shows what they have accomplished, and the results are quite disappointing.  The rising trend in the age at which an investigator receives their first NIH grant has leveled off, but it has definitely not turned around.  The age at which an NIH-funded investigator received their first major grant is now a shocking 42! One commenter on the NIH blog wondered if the NIH really deserves credit, and suggested that 42 may be a natural ceiling. Grant funding is an increasingly important measure of academic performance, and in the U.S., some major research universities will not grant tenure and promotion to an Assistant Professor until this first grant has been secured.  In this scenario, if you have not received a grant by age 42, you probably will need to look for another career.

This situation has ramifications for our scientific careers, and I am sure many of you have observed this.  In order to be competitive for an academic position, you need to be already among the best in your field when you receive your doctoral degree.  Then you enter a fierce competition for low-paid multi-year postdoctoral positions.  The competition increases even more when applying for a “real” academic job.  And then the race is on to secure that first grant.  There are few winners, and at each phase, well-educated people drop out of the system.  In fact, I am not even sure that the winners are those that are best qualified to do research.  The winners are those that are willing to write several grant proposals each year and never give up. If you have other career options, and want to make money and support a family, you may not want to stay in this cruel race.

This system is not only bad for careers; it is also bad for science.  We are educating a large number of PhD students, many of whom will never have a chance to become the independent academic investigators we are training them to be.  This is a waste of resources.  But it gets worse.  Most of the actual scientific work is done by these trainees, while the more experienced researchers who already have their degrees are dropping out of the system.  If we redirected some of our resources towards jobs for those more experienced researchers, I am sure that more and better science would get done.  On the career side, the probability of getting a job is exactly the number of jobs divided by the number of trainees.  Increasing the numerator while decreasing the denominator sounds like a good idea to me.

The situation is somewhat reminiscent of college sports in the U.S.  Student athletes all dream of becoming a professional, while they serve as cheap labor in a billion-dollar industry.  Of course most will never make it to the NFL or NBA, and sadly, many do not even receive enough of an education to be successful in another career.

So, why do we still have this business model of science being done by a professor and a number of graduate students?  Partly this is probably tradition, left over from a time when a doctoral degree was sufficient to secure a tenure track faculty position. Partly there may be pressure from the university on how best to use that research grant that you finally received at age 42.  A graduate student at a major research university in the U.S. would cost the grant nearly $60,000 per year (tuition and stipend), which is about the same as what you would pay a good postdoctoral researcher or engineer.  Obviously, for the university it is better to hire the student, because most of the money would be paid as tuition to the university. But which option is better for the professor’s lab and for the quality of the science?  I am not advocating the elimination of graduate students from research, but I am saying that we need a more balanced system where those students can actually find a job when their training is finished.

I realize that this has been a rather U.S.-centric story.  Those of you who are in other parts of the world may not have these same pressures, but I notice a tendency everywhere to become more like the U.S. and not all of that is good.  Research should not be about money, it should be about the people who do it and about the results that they produce.

I would welcome comments from readers.  We may eventually turn ISB NOW into a regular blog, where readers can submit comments online.  Perhaps, until then, you can respond to me by e-mail ( so I can address your comments in the next issue.  A faster option would be to discuss this topic on Biomch-L.

Ton van den Bogert
Cleveland, March 12, 2012


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