Future of fundamental discovery in US biomedical research

PNAS – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States
of America

[Accessed 10 June 2017]

Social Sciences – Economic Sciences:
Future of fundamental discovery in US biomedical research
Michael Levitt and Jonathan M. Levitt
PNAS 2017 ; published ahead of print June 5, 2017, doi:10.1073/pnas.1609996114
Innovative fundamental basic science research is traditionally done by young people. This makes the steady fall in the number of younger US basic scientists a serious concern. Our analysis suggests that this happened mainly due to a bias against younger applicants, with more money going to older principal investigators (PIs). We also find a large number of postdoctoral scholars and research associates, a rapid rise in number of PIs over 71, and a steady shift of NIH funds away from R01 grants. NIH is attempting to deal with some of these issues.
Young researchers are crucially important for basic science as they make unexpected, fundamental discoveries. Since 1982, we find a steady drop in the number of grant-eligible basic-science faculty [principal investigators (PIs)] younger than 46. This fall occurred over a 32-y period when inflation-corrected congressional funds for NIH almost tripled. During this time, the PI success ratio (fraction of basic-science PIs who are R01 grantees) dropped for younger PIs (below 46) and increased for older PIs (above 55). This age-related bias seems to have caused the steady drop in the number of young basic-science PIs and could reduce future US discoveries in fundamental biomedical science. The NIH recognized this bias in its 2008 early-stage investigator (ESI) policy to fund young PIs at higher rates. We show this policy is working and recommend that it be enhanced by using better data. Together with the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) program to reward senior PIs with research time in exchange for less funding, this may reverse a decades-long trend of more money going to older PIs. To prepare young scientists for increased demand, additional resources should be devoted to transitional postdoctoral fellowships already offered by NIH.