Great Science, Great Scientists, and Funding

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | December 18, 2009 11:35 am

Eric has an interesting post up on the age distribution for recipients of NIH grants since 1980:


He writes that it’s difficult for young U.S. researchers to obtain funding and points to Darwin and Einstein as examples of scientists with revolutionary ideas in their 20s–even though we tend to remember them as old men in photos.

While it’s a thought-provoking point, to be fair we really need to consider that there is more to this discussion than the most obvious factors. Yes, older PIs receive the lion’s share of funding, but these trends also reflect the large hiring periods in the past as university faculty members age. I agree that in many instances, scientists may be doing their most creative, groundbreaking research early, however, success during this time is not necessarily measured by obtaining large grants given few can land the job to be eligible until their mid-30s. Rather, it’s a crucial period for obtaining a faculty position, so the most promising young scientists may go on to recruit a lab, and eventually apply for such grants from a stronger position.

The trend’s shift right over decades may also reflect that postdocs are no longer allowed to be PIs on grants at many universities that do not want to lose a portion of overhead when the person leaves. In addition, agencies such as NIH provide a vast amount of fellowships to fund legions of graduate students (especially in the biomedical sciences) so it’s important to acknowledge that support to young scientists comes in many forms. NIH provides an enormous number of postdoc fellowships as well.

I do like Eric’s point that perhaps we should consider young Darwin and Einstein as iconic figures before their hair whitened. Still, we must remember that many complex factors are at play influencing the initial graph. The real question to consider is whether such grants are adequately funding early tenure track professors.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education, Science Workforce
MORE ABOUT: funding, grants, NIH, postdocs

Comments (14)

  1. Peggy

    Agreed – I believe this data is R01s, but I cant find the original source. Regardless of age, NIH grants to new investigators have been steadily declining. I would be curious to see if recommendations made by The National Academies (e.g., Bridges to Independence, 2005) have made any impact in the last few years, particular in the recent ARRA funding cycles.

  2. gillt

    Mooney: “The trend’s shift right over decades may also reflect that postdocs are no longer allowed to be PIs on grants at many universities that do not want to lose a portion of overhead when the person leaves.”

    post-docs can’t be PIs because why? I don’t understand.

    Peggy: “Regardless of age, NIH grants to new investigators have been steadily declining.”

    That’s because funding at the NIH has stagnated. Even lateral mobility within the NIH is exceedingly difficult as core facilities, for instance, aren’t filling positions when a scientist leaves.

  3. First, I wrote the post.

    post-docs can’t be PIs because why? I don’t understand.

    When a grant is acquired, the university gets a certain percentage of the funding as overhead. When a postdoc who received it moves on, he or she can take some of this funding with them to their new institution. Thus, many universities no longer allow postdocs to be listed as PIs.

  4. gillt

    apologies for the misattribution.

    Thanks for clearing it up.

  5. Ian

    Isn’t this also indicative of an aging population? Birth rates are falling, death rates are declining.

    Does the research say anything about the volumes of applicants across age bands?

  6. Peggy

    To be clear, the funding success rate for new investigators is declining AND the average age of new investigators is increasing. There is a ton of raw data (available on the NIH web-site) and multiple analyses by the NRC, although I haven’t seen anything about stimulus funding. Part of the problem is there aren’t enough tenure track positions, but this is expected to change as the boomers retire. Bottom line, they don’t have a complete answer…NIH is still trying to model the population dynamics of the US scientific workforce and understand interventions (e.g., RFA-GM-10-003).

  7. So why are we keeping people in post-docs until they are past their prime?

  8. SLC

    In all fairness, it should be pointed out that Darwin funded his own work as he came from a well to do family and his wife came from one of the wealthiest families in Great Britain. Obviously, the day of gentleman scientists has passed.

  9. Brian Too

    I’ve just spent about 5 minutes trying to figure out what PI stands for. What I’ve come up with is “Post-Doctoral Investigator”. Am I on the right track?

    Because as a child of the 70’s, a PI to me will always be what Columbo, Cannon, Rockford and Baretta were!

  10. gillt

    PI stands for Principal Investigator, someone who heads a lab and its research. At least in biology labs post-docs have their own projects under the direction and guidance of a PI, and are considered in training.

  11. Peggy

    Lab Leming: Everyone benefits (i.e., makes money) except young researchers, no? Presumably, the “best and the brightest” leverage their networks or break out of the system.

  12. Peggy

    Lab Lemming: sorry for misspelling your name. I obviously need an edit option.

  13. Karl Leif Bates

    There are some huge demographics — AKA the Baby Boom — underlying this graph that cannot be ignored.

    That first, sharpest, peak in 1980 corresponds with people born in 1947, the first-borns of the Baby Boom. Notice then that the peak attenuates somewhat in 1990, with the later-born boomers (who are more in number) getting in on the act, and flattens out further still as you go on. It’s not so discouraging to look at this way, especially if you plotted these trends against the numbers of applicants in each age-cohort.

    That said, the age of first funding is probably creeping older, and that IS a problem. So guess what? The reviewers controlling the purse strings are mostly baby boomers in their late 50s and early 60s. As a tail-ender of the boom, this graph is the story of my life.

  14. SLC’s point is well taken. It can be a little risky to cite Einstein and Darwin, whether for early or later work, as they weren’t funded by the government. Darwin never did and Einstein’s prolific early work can only be said to be gov’t funded from his paycheck working for the patent office. I believe the Curies struggled for funding before their first Nobel as did many others no doubt. It’s appealing to reference the iconic scientists of earlier eras, but that was before the enormous costs and extensive government funding of research we have today. Be careful about giving ammunition to those who would cut or eliminate gov’t funding with the argument that geniuses like Einstein and Darwin didn’t need it.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


See More

Collapse bottom bar