One striking figure highlighted in the article shows that the percentage of principal investigators with a leading National Institutes of Health grant aged 36 years old or younger fell from 18 % in 1983 to only 3 % in 2010. The average age for a scientist with a medical degree to obtain their first of these grants has risen from less than 38 years old in 1980 to over 45 in 2013. Prof Daniels points out the implications of these facts for younger scientists in the article: "Without their own funding, young researchers are prevented from starting their own laboratories, pursuing their own research, and advancing their own careers in academic science. It is not surprising that many of our youngest minds are choosing to leave their positions."
Prof Daniels goes on to point out that if the exodus of young researchers from academia continues, it will have implications including gradual evaporation of new discoveries, loss of future leaders and mentors, reduced diversity in the workforce and the loss of scientists just as they reach what should be a pivotal point in their career. The article identifies the three main reasons behind the reduction in research funding for younger researchers as longer training periods, a grant system that may favour incumbents and increases in cost of research to universities, which may result in them sticking with established researchers rather than taking a chance on younger candidates with no established funding stream.
In the article, Prof Daniels suggests policy reforms to address the position of young scientists. These include more robust funding of the NIH, with more money set aside for new talent, and refining of the peer review process to better accommodate inexperienced scientists and more daring proposals. He also suggests that a standing body should be established to review the issue on an ongoing basis and assess effectiveness of any interventions, as well as to drive stakeholders such as the NIH, Congress and the universities to take effective action.
Prof Daniels says that the U.S. can learn from other countries: "The inability to staunch -- if not reverse -- the above trends stands as an urgent and compelling policy challenge. The current stewards of the U.S. research enterprise bear a responsibility to sustain and safeguard that enterprise so that it can provide a platform for the scientists and the science of generations to come…Other countries are marshalling the will and resources to invest in the next generation of young scientists. A comparable solution in the United States will require a comparable commitment on the part of all actors in the biomedical science ecosystem. ... Our next generation of scientists, and indeed our next generation of science, demands nothing less."
Reference: Daniels RJ. A generation at risk: Young investigators and the future of the biomedical workforce. PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1418761112
Press release: Johns Hopkins University; available at http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-01/jhu-sar010715.php