The DrugMonkey blog is often insightful about the state of NIH funding and its effects on scientific practice. Recently, it included this depressing post: “Gen X will never live up to its scientific potential”.
I was there. I know who did the actual work in the labs in my fields of interest. I know the way a finding or paper or model resulted in the lab head having copious funding for a decade and a half, verging on two decades now. I know which of those scientists of my generation failed to make it big. There are a lot of them that will never achieve their promise. A lot who had to bail entirely on the career after what would have been a career-making paper as a trainee, if they were just a generation older. I can point to very few of the Gen X people in my fields of closest interest who have hit mid career with anything like the funding, verve and accomplishment of even some of the more, shall we say, pedestrian members of the generation just prior to mine. Actually, come to think of it, I am hard pressed to point to a single one.
There are two key observations:
(1) Increases in the cost of scientific research have not been matched historically by increases in NIH funding, so that fewer projects are being funded, and new principal investigators are being funded at older and older ages. Presently, the average age of a first-time grantee for the R01 mechanism is more than 42. For many years, “New Investigator” status was going to Baby Boomers who were even older than this.
(2) The training time for PhD and postdocs has radically increased, to the point where many people are spending 6+ years in graduate school and going through multiple rounds of 3-5 year postdocs.
I think he has a valuable perspective on the problems of building a scientific career. Federal grant funding may once have been well-suited to career building, but those days are mostly past. Sure there are exceptions, individual scientists who are early grant successes and can leverage early discoveries into a stable funding pattern across multiple cycles. But most working scientists will not start their careers as independent researchers in this way. Depending upon federal grant programs as a career development mechanism is not a viable strategy.