NIH has some groundbreaking ideas to transform science in academia. Read more to learn why. First, the background: tomorrow is Commencement at SMU and NIH Director Francis S. Collins will deliver the Commencement address as well as receive a Honorary Doctor of Science. Three other outstanding individuals will also receive honorary degrees - astrophysicist Francis Halzen of UW-Madison, arts philanthropist Nancy Nasher and New Testament scholar E.P. Sanders (read more about them here). Yesterday and today at SMU saw several remarkable events featuring those awardees.
For this post, I want to focus on the last one, which was a panel discussion involving NIH Director Francis S. Collins, SMU Provost Steven Currall, SMU Professor Pia Vogel and UT Southwestern Medical Center President Daniel Podolsky. Dr. Collins made a presentation about science discoveries that he hopes will happen within 10 years, and then took part in the panel discussion, and finally took questions for the audience. The most interesting one was the last one, about the funding of academic research in science.
Dr. Collins cited a 2014 New York Times op-ed by Andy Harris, Young, Brilliant and Underfunded, that pointed out that most of the Nobel Prize winners and other notable scientists came up with their breakthrough ideas between the age of 35 and 39, "yet the median age of first-time recipients of R01 grants, the most common and sought-after form of N.I.H. funding is 42 while the median age of all recipients is 52. More people over 65 are funded with research grants than those under age 35."
This was after a comment by Dr. Collins about the N.I.H. having gotten better at funding early-career researchers by putting them in their own, separate pool if they have never received N.I.H. funding before, but not better at funding mid-career researchers, who report getting "squeezed". The aging of science's principal academic investigators is also problematic for the long-term vigor of the field.
This helps put his next remark in context: according to Dr Collins, recent data suggests the productivity of a N.I.H. principal investigator begins to drop after the third concurrent grant, and that if rules were put in place that reassign funding dollars from those 4th or more concurrent grants, N.I.H. would be able to make 900 extra grants to early- and mid-career researchers (I suppose those grant amounts would be smaller than the grants of the "big shots" but he did not discuss that). He made it clear that they would be for grant proposals that fell just short of funding under the present rules - grant proposals that deserved funding but could not be funded due to insufficient funds.
The other transformative concept Dr. Collins talked about was of "early-independence awards" to help young PhDs skip post-docs and get them "unleashed" earlier, so that they can be creative and make independent groundbreaking discoveries earlier. Not everybody needs a post-doc. What I found most staggering about it is that the fields of engineering and management, where you did not use to need a post-doc to get a faculty position, have slowly become so risk-averse (reluctant to hire just-graduated PhDs in case they don't manage to become independent) that they have aligned themselves more and more on science and now it is quite usual to do a post-doc before obtaining a faculty position, and now that science has led us into a three-stage academic model of PhD/post-doc/faculty position, it is moving away from that. So maybe engineering and management will return to their old ways too.
I think it is particularly welcome for science to develop ways to bypass postdocs because faculty members in science often have lower pay than their colleagues in management or engineering, in addition to often having longer time-to-completion in the PhD program, so they can't easily make up for their lost wages once they are on the faculty. Some even take 1 or 2 years before they apply to PhD programs to work as lab techs (when they plan to go into experimental fields). Others take 2 postdocs before they go on to faculty positions.
All in all we are looking at talented scientists who, in the current model, first become independent Assistant Professors around the age of 35, which is (1) really late to start giving some stability to scientists, and can help explain why many prefer careers outside academia, (2) the low end of the 35-39 age window for the breakthrough discoveries by Nobel Prize winners or equivalent discussed above. You can't really expect brand new Assistant Professors to make that level of discoveries within months of their first faculty position. And of course not everyone will end up a Nobel Prize winner or equivalent, but that's not a reason to needlessly discourage people from staying in academia. There is a case to be made that the thinkers most capable of transformative innovation aren't necessarily always the ones well-established research behemoths but may well be, sometimes, researchers at less well-established institutions. Their ideas deserve to be given a chance too.
My next post will summarize the rest of the panel discussion.