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:
*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.
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.