When I think of the future of biomedical research, I think of my daughter. She is an MD/PhD student at Johns Hopkins University. By the time she graduates with both degrees she will be 30. She will have had four years of graduate school and superb scientific training (including published biomedical research as an undergraduate). But, according to data from the National Institutes of Health, she will have another 13 years to go before she will be competitive for the most common and substantial research grants the NIH offers.
Some of that time will be spent in clinical training but much of it will be in one or more postdoctoral stints, working as an apprentice to investigators who are senior to her. This prolonged training greatly shortens the independent careers of new researchers, and puts tremendous pressure on new faculty to be productive during the years when they are most likely to have the most extensive family demands. We need to find a way to fund these investigators earlier in their careers, when they are most innovative and productive.
Part of the answer lies in changing the culture of peer review. As it stands now, my daughter’s first application will be at a disadvantage because she is a woman. According to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, research shows that both men and women scientists will score an identical application higher when it comes from “John” than when it comes from “Jennifer.” It is critically important that we scientists either do a better job educating ourselves about our inherent biases and their impact on our decision-making or find effective ways to blind reviewers to irrelevant data, like the gender, race or ethnicity of the applicant.
My daughter will also be at a disadvantage simply because she is a new applicant. There is a strong incumbency advantage—investigators under 45 achieve a lower funding rate than their older colleagues do. This advantage may be based on reviewers relying on the “track record” of accomplishment for older investigators. Also, those who are more established are likely to have a network of colleagues who know them and populate review panels. Again, it may be beneficial to blind reviewers to the applicant’s identity, focusing reviews on the scientific merit of the proposal while putting less emphasis on the track record of the investigator.
Of course, the incumbency advantage may also speak to the inexperience of new investigators in preparing and submitting grant applications. That is where institutions and mentors must step to the plate, to provide better training, guidance and support for individuals submitting their first NIH Research Project Grant (R01) applications.
Young investigators like my daughter might benefit most from a recent proposal from the NIH to create an emeritus award for senior investigators who will pass their knowledge and their resources to a junior colleague. I think this approach can work, because I lived it.
My mentor at Washington University in Saint Louis—Joseph Davie, MD, PhD—transferred his NIH grant to me when he left academia for industry, giving me an R01 in my early 30s. This accelerated my career and helped me pursue my research goals, which I did for more than 22 years before transitioning to full-time administration. How wonderful it would be if my daughter, and many of our future scientists, could experience the same kind of rewarding career that Joe and I had.
The scientific community needs to work more broadly with funders of scientific research to develop ways to embrace and encourage younger scientists. It’s not an easy task but it’s a vital one because it’s crucial that the best young scientists see a promising career ahead in scientific research, a major ingredient in our nation’s economic preeminence.
It’s time to make it happen.
Samuel L. Stanley, Jr., is a physician and medical researcher and president of Stony Brook University, S.U.N.Y. in New York State.