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.