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More Data on Age and the Workforce

There has been a lot of discussion in the community about the age of NIH supported researchers. As I’ve mentioned here on the blog before, we continue to examine how best to sustain the biomedical workforce. There are many ways to characterize our workforce or the biomedical research ecosystem, and many factors that contribute to successfully obtaining an NIH award. Since the topic of age is a popular one right now, I’d like to share with you some recent analyses that my office looked into regarding the distribution of research funding by age group.

We examined total and direct costs of NIH research project grants from 1998 through the last full fiscal year, and graphed the distribution of research funding by age group. The full data is posted on RePORT, and since the patterns are similar, I’ll post the graph of direct cost funding distribution below:

Graph: Proportion of RPG Direct Cost Dollars Awarded by PI Age Group with "unknown" values removed - visit for data tables and additional information

*On average 7.5% of the awards analyzed have unknown information on age, and those data are removed in this graph, but are included in the Excel file on RePORT.

This graph shows we are seeing exciting, high quality science by investigators at almost every age, and it tracks with data previously shown on the blog regarding the distribution of NIH-funded principal investigators PIs.

We’ve also updated those charts with age data for NIH PIs with R01s and NIH PIs with RPGs. The patterns are similar comparing the NIH RPG PI pool with the NIH R01 PI pool, with a greater number of principal investigators being age 66 and older. The distribution of funding shown above follows this trend as well.

Percentage of NIH R01 Equivalent Principal Investigators of All Degrees: Age 35 and Younger vs. Age 66 and Older Fiscal Year 1980 - 2014 Source: Percentage of NIH RPG Principal Investigators of All Degrees Age 35 and Younger vs. Age 66 and Older Fiscal Year 1980 - 2014 Source:

It is important to remember, however, that this information is just a narrow snapshot of the NIH-supported workforce, and the biomedical research workforce as a whole is a very large and complex enterprise. These trends do not occur in isolation, and while NIH funding and policy can influence these demographics, we know that the workforce is aging across all sectors. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Pew Research Center show that more people in the US who are in the 55-64, 65-74, and 75+ age brackets are working, and this trend is projected to continue through 2022. A nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center in 2009 highlights some of the reasons people cite for remaining in the workforce longer. While these data are not limited to individuals with a certain level of educational experience (e.g., college degrees or post-graduate degrees) it indicates that in general, older Americans are remaining active in the workforce. This pattern is likely due in part due to the global economy where fluctuations in the markets or declines in pensions for retirees have an influence how long people remain in the workplace. Also, because of the great advances in health and clinical care, which we as the research community have had a large role in making possible, people in the United States are healthier and living longer than ever before, and this too may contribute to people’s decision to put off retirement. The take away here is that many factors influence the age of the workforce – whether it be the NIH-supported workforce, or the biomedical workforce more broadly. We will continue to explore the dynamics of our workforce and use our understanding to develop policies that will keep our enterprise vibrant.

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41 thoughts on “More Data on Age and the Workforce

  1. Agreed that going back only to 1998 is a narrow snap shot. How about you take these data all the way back to 1970 or so? Taking a longer, multi-scientific-generational look is the only way to understand what demographic distributions were associated with particular stages of scientific progress, funding stability/insecurity, etc in your system. It is also the only reasonable way to generate prescriptive solutions for where we should be in 5, 10, 15 years’ time.

  2. Is it possible to pull out what percent of the RO1 funding is going to new investigators? I am curious to see if its more or less than that going to the over 65 group.

  3. The top graph is not exciting, but embarrassing. We are drowning out future investigators by diverting resources to an aging generation…Does the trend of fewer and fewer young investigators match the trend of how many trainees we are supporting?

  4. This graph says nothing about “exciting, high quality science by investigators at almost every age”. It only shows where NIH is spending its dollars within the parameters of the report. The data clearly indicate that despite all of the stated concern about a sustainable workforce, the percentage of RPG dollars awarded to investigators under 50 is decreasing. While the age distribution of the workforce may indeed mirror broader national employment metrics, that knowledge does nothing to address the serious infrastructure problems we face other than provide an excuse for inaction. Talented students, postdocs and junior faculty will continue to flee the system, undeterred by novel biosketches, Emeritus and MIRA awards.

  5. This just reinforces it… The study panels are continuing to reward the old PIs that refuse to let go. They got theirs, screw the younger researchers. All this vaunted talk to support ESIs and pathetic efforts to do so are only rewarding the postdocs that willingly worked in a machine lab run by a sad and pathetic PI that continues to display the very image of a selfish old person. Why don’t we stop looking at the same charts year after year and start actually, I don’t know, FIXING the damned problem? No more than 50% salary on grants. No more helping the really old and the really young that only came out of an old fart’s lab. Start helping the mid career investigators. WE are the ones getting hammered. WE are the ones that were promised the moon and are being screwed for it. WE got the old PIs their accolades, and WE are being rewarded for it with Ramen noodles.

    • So, who promised you the moon? Whoever it was wasn’t authorized to give it to you. You got duped. Go gripe at them. It’s probably the person you see in the mirror.

    • So, there is no prejudice against young people when it comes to grant review. I am on Study Section so I know what I am talking about. If you want a grant, write a good proposal. AND BTW, from my experience, I can see a poor work ethic in younger scientists as part of their problem. I work harder and longer hours than any of my graduate students, Even the young faculty that we interview for positions in our department are more concerned about how hard they have to work to get tenure than they are about anything else about the job. And they expect us to hand over a million dollars (literally) so they can get a good start. Wanna talk about young people getting screwed? Game on.

    • But the senior PIs keep recruiting new postdoc fellows who are trained for the positions that do not exist. NIH shall stop these lies victimizing the young generations of scientist.

  6. So lets do 10 year age ranges comparing 1998 vs 2014 :
    <40: 11% vs 10%
    41-50: 24% vs 19%
    51-60: 34% vs 23%
    61+: 12% vs 28%
    If you are in the 40-60 age range you now have an approx. 1 in 5 shot of getting funded (based on this age data only). That's putting in 2 tries at a RO1, 2 tries at an A0 and then perhaps getting a R21 funded (if you are lucky enough to have an institution willing to support you while you have 5 attempts at funding). In 1998, you had a 1 in 3 shot at getting funded if you were 51-60 – is it a coincidence that this is the same number of tries allowed back then for getting a RO1 ?
    If NIH is serious about addressing this age issue, instead of reinventing the wheel, maybe you should look back to see what policies were in place in 1998 and reinstate some of them.

  7. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: don’t fund R01s for single-PI grants when the PI is 65 or older. This will force them to seek out younger colleagues to partner with and will create a situation in which the older PI basically has to act as a mentor for the younger person, whether intentionally or simply by observation of the older PI’s methods. Couple that with a cap of 2 R01s per person max, and the percentages of investigators with grants will shoot up while the average age at first R01 will fall. More importantly, science in the US will stop stagnating because the young innovators will drive progress again.

    • What you are suggesting is AGE discrimination. We already are partnering with younger colleagues. In this funding climate, they can gain by our grant experience, and we can do a collaborative grant that utilizes their new investigator status. Some of us got our degrees quite late in life due to uncontrollable personal circumstances. I did and paid off my school loans at 58 (yes, there was no silver spoon stuck in my mouth). I got my first NIHR01 grant at 66. I am in good health, and I am doing my best and most innovative work ever. I try to mentor younger colleagues as much as possible, whether in my field or not. Try not to generalize. I understand the frustration, as I also spent years trying to gain acceptance and get grants. In our dept. we straight research types are totally on soft money and no one in our department can be tenure-track or tenured. 50% on one grant means 50% salary. Not everyone can do this…everyone’s circumstances are not the same. There is a lot of nuance in writing fundable, excellent grants, and few get funded on the first go around.
      Best of luck, but some of us are not yet ready to give it up, and feel we still have a lot to offer. There are no magic formulas, and someday, if you are lucky, you may be an old fart too….

      old fart

      • Old Fart, I have to thank you for helping me to remain optimistic. I am a mother of three who has made many career sacrifices to support her tenure track-seeking spouse. While stubbornly refusing to give up due to my ridiculous passion for research, I have slowly been losing hope of ever having a chance to do independently funded research. Rather, my knowledge and expertise continues to aid other PIs (sometimes older, sometime younger) secure funding. Your story has renewed my faith that it might be possible, as I have a few more good years left. I have recently been dreaming of a “Late Bloomers” funding program…if only NIH knew what kind of investment they are losing when people like myself finally give up

  8. Has anyone considered that funding is going to older PIs NOT due to bias but because there may not be as many younger ones submitting competitive applications? Not to dis the younger PIs — this could be for many reasons, such as fewer people going into research and more departing due to funding cuts over the past X years?

    • The analysis does not take into account the size of each generation. The 55+ year old brackets represent the baby boomers and there are simply more of them than there are in succeeding generations

  9. I wonder if the graphs look like that because the majority of young PIs from 1980-90 are still PIs in 2014?

  10. From the top graph, it would seem that in 2014 most age groups are represented fairly equivalently except the under 24-40 which loss some footing. With the average postdoc age climbing, maybe it is a reflection more of where people are in their careers for this group and fewer are putting in grants.

  11. I see no reason to take age into consideration at all in making funding decisions. Funding should be based only on scientific merit. Funding older established investigators benefits younger scientists because the older investigators are more likely to be training the next generations of scientists (undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs). When I was young and received my first NIH funding I could only afford to pay my salary and a part-time technician. Now, as an older established investigator I am able to train students and postdocs in my lab. Putting older scientists at a disadvantage for funding will only discourage young people from going into research because they know that before they know it they will be “old”. It will not be very appealing to enter a system that makes it more difficult to be successful the older you get. Should we apply the same age bias to all professions?

    • Katz has it right: Funding should be based on scientific merit. Period. Taking age into consideration is, according to federal law, illegal.

      • I do agree Rosie.
        Moreover, I would like to add that some senior PIs are foreigners that established their academic biomedical labs later after struggling with immigration rules and re certification of their medical degrees. I know many of them, mostly in academic institutions that are geographically unappealing to younger PIs grown and educated on the East or West coast. These senior PIs contribute to the economy and growth of small University towns. By providing lab environments and good mentorship to the local student populations, these PIs inspire young people, showing them that hardship is not an obstacle to pursue science. Fund them,on the merit of their applications and they will benefit younger generations of scientists in more undeserved US communities and universities.

    • I agree. There should be no discrimination based on age. Curtailing the work of highly productive scientists with a proven track record solely because of their age does not serve the scientific community or the nation’s needs.

    • I could not agree more: Scientific merit determined through peer-review (not political or programmatic review) should be the criteria to fund established investigators, independently of their age.
      Unfortunately, changes in the biosketch, new awards for old timers and newly suggested golden parachutes go in the direction of protecting currently unproductive individuals simply because they were did good things in the past.

  12. But what is the percentage of grant submissions funded in each age group? This is not what you have plotted above. For instance, for every 100 RO1 grant applications submitted by those over 65, between 60 and 65, between 30 and 40, etc. what percentage gets funded? This is the type of data needed to see if there is age discrimination in NIH study sections.

  13. We are worried about the age of NIH investigators !! This is the last of our national research problems. ..OK here goes…. I would think considering the fact that: a) chronic diseases are the main economic and quality of life threat our 21st C healthcare system needs to deal with and the NIH mission isprimarily to improve the health of Americans; 2) 75% of our $3T US healthcare bill (almost $19% of GDP) is spent on the treatment of chronic diseases; 3) a majority of this is spent is on treating the preventable, miserable complications of chronic disease that are afflicting our citizens; 4) we already know how to avoid most chronic disease complications through prevention strategies in the home and community and investing in primary care but are simply not doing it; 5) the NIH has been hijacked by the basic scientists (lets examine the mechanisms of the complications of chronic diseases and spend billions !); 6) there is a pittance of money currently invested by the NIH in translating what know already know to prevent chronic disease complications. 7) why does the NIH repeat this insanity; 8) completely disband the NIH and form a new committee of a broader set of empiricists, theorists, and pragmatists to research health in the US.

    • All meaningful advances in medicine, health care and just about everything were by-products of basic sciences. Disbanding basic science in favor of empirical, pragmatic and otherwise “translational” activities is the shortest way to become a third-world society.

  14. What’s missing is the age of the applicants!! For each age group we need to ratio the number who get grants to the number who applied for grants. This will tell if there is a change in trends to award to older researchers or if we are awarding more to the over 65 crowd because there are so very many more of the them these days.

  15. Ditto about 65+ being required to be co-PI with a younger colleague. This is done for internal grants at our institution, and works well to allow older and younger colleagues to learn from each other. Both PI’s benefit from an active lab and collaboration with both mutual and disparate interests to achieve the project goals. Longer grant projects and never more than 1-2 RO1 grants per investigator should be the rule.

  16. I love how you always try to put such a positive spin on such lousy data – increasing funding to the oldest PIs at the expense of mid-career investigators is NOT a recipe for sustainabiliyy

  17. I hate to be cynical but as one of the those former assistant professors who probably submitted 15 R01 applications that were triaged when I was starting out, I feel now that I should be able to capitalize on what I learned and all my suffering during this period and have three R01s now. The grant submission process is so specialized and so arcane that it takes years to learn how to submit a good grant, which keeps young investigators from being funded during some of their most creative and energetic years.

    • I couldn’t agree more. Let’s put de-identification codes on applications, and submit them without biosketches or institutions identified so that grants are awarded based on the merit of the ideas and proposed experiments.

  18. In many respects young investigators have it much better than I did when I was a new junior faculty member in 1994. I am now 52. As this was just before the start of the Clinton-era doubling of the NIH budget, the pay lines in NIGMS were similar or worse back then. My start up package was about 20% of what new faculty are receiving now (200K vs 1000K). Since my start up package would only last me 1 1/2 years, my first R01 grant was written before I left my postdoctoral position and it was submitted 1 1/2 months after I started my faculty position. I am fortunate that the project had an inherent coolness factor at the time and it was funded with a single digit percentile rank (none of my renewals have scored that well). I am now 20 years into the project any my direct costs are still only 190K, although this is technically a new grant because I was not funded in 4 successive attempts. Junior faculty that I know rarely submit their first grant application to NIH until year 3. Why? I think part of the answer is because they have a huge start up package and study section panel members know this. So instead of NIH supporting young investigators it is the tuition dollars of the undergraduates that support new investigator research. Unlike my situation when I started, start ups allow support for ~4 years. Young investigators should feel fortunate because a condition of my tenure was obtaining a grant renewal.

    • PB, in my experience, obtaining a 1st grant and renewing it is still a condition to be met before one can be considered for tenure. Definitely no waiting until year 3 to submit at my institution.

  19. ‘This pattern is likely due in part due to the global economy where fluctuations in the markets or declines in pensions for retirees have an influence how long people remain in the workplace. ‘

    The current tenure system ensures that fluctuations in the markets affected little the tenured senior scientists across time – what other branch of activity you know of in the western world that guarantees the job regardless of performance?

    I totally agree with the ideas of stopping funding the 65+ category and capping awards to two R01’s. At 65+ the most likely scenario is a rehash of previous work. Two R01’s means a lot of work in the lab, nobody can contribute meaningfully to millions of things at the same time.

  20. HELLLLOOOOOO….This does happen to be the United States and age discrimination is illegal. Period.
    Grants need to be judged on merit, that’s all.
    I am shocked to see the NIH even discussing discriminatory policies, this is really unacceptable.

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