What’s Behind The Exodus of Young Investigators From the Medical Research Workforce?

Evaluating the types of grants young investigators are applying for could provide a better sense of how to maintain them, and to attract more back to NIH-funded research.

A recent publication in Cell Stem Cell caused a wave of discussion surrounding the “greying” biomedical workforce in the United States. The authors report that, as our aging workforce expands, a decreasing number of young investigators are applying for National Institute of Health (NIH) R01-equivalent grants.1 As a result, older investigators are more frequently awarded R01-equivalent grants, simply because more of them are applying. Since this is the NIH’s most commonly-used grant, providing up to 5 years of funding, it serves as a good barometer of investigator intention. Though the author’s note that experience seems to predict award success, these results challenge the perception that young scientists receive less NIH support due to a lack of seniority.

The realization that young investigators are turning their backs on academia is long-founded. The financial benefits of going into industry are clear, but not paramount. Intellectual autonomy, an increased capacity to take risks, and faster actualization of ideas are also major incentives. With the phasing out of tenured positions, emerging researchers face a life’s work of grant applications in academia, bringing the long-term stability of their positions and research into question.

Endeavors outside of NIH-funded research are not, however, without their costs, namely the forfeiture of intellectual property rights. Loss of mentorship and the associated “transfer of knowledge” are realities with great implications for the personal and professional development of young scientists. The pitfalls when independent biomedical research goes awry can also be steep. This was recently exemplified by the private laboratory testing company, Theranos.

Due to a failure to correct deficiencies found in their testing practices, the company’s CLIA certificate was revoked in California by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Among additional sanctions imposed by the CMS, Theranos has lost their partnership with Walgreens, and is under investigation by the United States House of Representatives.

There are practical dilemmas of this academic exodus. The present study’s authors indicate that to maintain our current NIH-funded workforce, 10% more young investigators would be needed if all investigators over the age of 65 retire.

Though this number is reduced to 4% if a retirement age of 70 is considered, the replacement discrepancy will continue to grow as young researchers pursue alternative paths. Loss of professional manpower is not just an issue in the realm of biomedical research, but a national reality of baby boomer retirement. Though the waving of mandatory retirement extended the careers of many scientists, a shortage of NIH-funded investigators seems inevitable.

Evaluating the types of grants young investigators are applying for could provide a better sense of how to maintain them, and to attract more back to NIH-funded research. Though the authors provide applicant metrics as guidance to the NIH, they do not believe changes to NIH policy would greatly sway the current course. Nevertheless, the effects of the past decade’s cuts on NIH spending are undeniable.

Between 2007 and 2012, the US decreased biomedical Research and Development (R&D) spending by 1.9% as other countries invested more. China increased their R&D expenditure by 32.8%. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) summarizes that the U.S. lost 22% of its NIH funding since 2003 due to budget cuts, the 2013 sequestration, and inflation.2

Though the NIH increased its budget by 5.9% last year, the loss is not mitigated. As academic centers and universities switch to a reliance on federal grants, funding has simultaneously become more limited and more competitive.

The HR6 – 21st Century Cures Act is making its way through congress and stands to increase NIH funding by $3 billion; FASEB predicts this increase will make up for the funding deficit. HR6 also includes expansion of NIH Loan Repayment Programs, built to attract young scientists away from industry by compensating for salary differences through student loan assistance.3 The maximum reward would be increased to $50,000 per annum of NIH-related research, adjusted annually for inflation.

Yet the decision to enter industry is personal. In an interview with Cancer Therapy Advisor, Dr Heggeness, PhD, a research economist and branch chief for the US Census Bureau in Washington, D.C., said, “somebody going into industry, from a national perspective, is not necessarily costing the country talent.” Still, new paradigms are needed, and private-public collaborations are a promising way forward.

The Accelerating Medicines Partnership (AMP), a partnership between the NIH, the US Food and Drug Administration, 10 biopharmaceutical companies, and non-profit organizations, focuses on Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and systemic lupus erythematosus research. Previous NIH collaborations with industry have proven fruitful, and similar partnerships in the non-profit sector are becoming prevalent.

There is an evolving acknowledgement that the way research is conducted has become inefficient, particularly in light of major advances in imaging, proteomics and genomics. With the mission of these alliances centering around maximizing resources, knowledge-sharing, and expediency in treatment development, their priorities highlight fundamental scientific ideals attractive to both emerging and established researchers.


  1. Heggeness ML, Carter-Johnson F, Schaffer WT, Rockey SJ. Policy implications of aging in the NIH-funded workforce. Cell Stem Cell. 7 Jul 2016. doi: 10.1016/j.stem.2016.06.012 [Epub ahead of print]
  2. NIH Research Funding Trends. Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). http://faseb.org/Science-Policy-and-Advocacy/Federal-Funding-Data/NIH-Research-Funding-Trends.aspx. Accessed July 2016.
  3. H.R.6 – 21st Century Cures Act. Congress.gov. https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/6/text. Updated July 13, 2015. Accessed July 2016.

This article originally appeared on Cancer Therapy Advisor