Robert Weinberg from the Whitehead Institue has a more than revealing commentary in the latest issue of Cell. He titles his piece “A lost generation”.
He writes mostly about the current fate of young researchers in science (and by “young” in science, it translates to scientists in their thirties or perhaps early forties). These undoubtedly are by far the most productive years of a scientists life, and during these years (s)he usually make their most significant, “career defining” discoveries. At this age, researchers have boundless energy, and the willingness to ask and attempt to tackle risky and challenging questions. But it is becoming increasingly hard for young scientists to establish themselves, and get out pathbreaking work.
The average age of a biomedical researcher obtaining her/his first big independent grant from the NIH (the all important R01) has gone up from 34 to 41.7 years. That basically translates to most of the research in this country being led by “old” researchers. To me, this resembles what continues to happen in tradition bound societies (like India), where researchers past their prime, and without great drive, head groups (where young researchers are subject to their bosses ideas), and the scientific productivity, particularly when it comes to new, breakthrough research, suffers. To me, the best thing about research in the US is independence and resources given to young researchers, as assistant professors or some times even as postdocs. Their work often resulted in new paradigms or directions for their chosen fields.
Big funding agencies also now seem to believe that only major, collaborative research projects, across many groups, are really worth funding. Sure, that results in some extensive papers, usually published by the biggies (Nature, Cell and Science). But, though the work is often profound, it rarely is of a nature that sets new directions in the field. Partly because many of the senior, established researchers are more risk averse, and also increasingly devote less time to specific ideas (they have empires to run, and so can’t waste their time on pushing one or two high risk ideas).
Weinberg rightly makes the case that this makes science research rather unattractive for young researchers. As a young researcher myself, it is daunting to think of the years ahead as a postdoc, or later perhaps as an assistant professor, with increasing difficulties in getting funding (what with the agencies preferring “established” groups in getting funding, and with a decrease in funding available due to budget cuts). It’ll be years before I can even establish myself, at a time when my friends in other fields have risen to the top in their chosen careers. It’s very unsurprising that many of my brightest friends who have chosen science would rather look for positions in industry (big companies or biotech), rather than try to establish themselves independently, and attempt to crack some unsolved, challenging problems.
Weinberg’s vision in this regard is all the more important. His prophetic closing words “……As a consequence, those of us who conduct discovery research are confronting the prospect of a lost generation, a wide gap in our ranks, as bright young people look elsewhere to discover their career paths. The marvelous engine of American biomedical research that was constructed during the last half of the 20th century is being taken apart, piece by piece. We will all pay for this destruction for decades to come.”
Read the entire article here (subscription required).