The Future of the Biomedical Research Workforce in the United States

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As our aging workforce expands, a decreasing number of young investigators are applying for National Institute of Health (NIH) R01-equivalent grants.
As our aging workforce expands, a decreasing number of young investigators are applying for National Institute of Health (NIH) R01-equivalent grants.

A recent publication in Cell Stem Cell caused a wave of discussion surrounding the “greying” biomedical workforce in the United States. The authors report that, as our aging workforce expands, a decreasing number of young investigators are applying for National Institute of Health (NIH) R01-equivalent grants.1 As a result, older investigators are more frequently awarded R01-equivalent grants, simply because more of them are applying. Since this is the NIH's most commonly-used grant, providing up to 5 years of funding, it serves as a good barometer of investigator intention.

Though the author's note that experience seems to predict award success, these results challenge the perception that young scientists receive less NIH support due to a lack of seniority.

The realization that young investigators are turning their backs on academia is long-founded. The financial benefits of going into industry are clear, but not paramount. Intellectual autonomy, an increased capacity to take risks, and faster actualization of ideas are also major incentives. With the phasing out of tenured positions, emerging researchers face a life's work of grant applications in academia, bringing the long-term stability of their positions and research into question.

Endeavors outside of NIH-funded research are not, however, without their costs, namely the forfeiture of intellectual property rights. Loss of mentorship and the associated “transfer of knowledge” are realities with great implications for the personal and professional development of young scientists. The pitfalls when independent biomedical research goes awry can also be steep. This was recently exemplified by the private laboratory testing company, Theranos.

Due to a failure to correct deficiencies found in their testing practices, the company's CLIA certificate was revoked in California by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Among additional sanctions imposed by the CMS, Theranos has lost their partnership with Walgreens, and is under investigation by the United States House of Representatives.

There are practical dilemmas of this academic exodus. The present study's authors indicate that to maintain our current NIH-funded workforce, 10% more young investigators would be needed if all investigators over the age of 65 retire.

Though this number is reduced to 4% if a retirement age of 70 is considered, the replacement discrepancy will continue to grow as young researchers pursue alternative paths. Loss of professional manpower is not just an issue in the realm of biomedical research, but a national reality of baby boomer retirement. Though the waving of mandatory retirement extended the careers of many scientists, a shortage of NIH-funded investigators seems inevitable.

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