Last week, PNAS published work by Michael and Jonathan Levitt outlining in vivid detail the continued pattern towards a greying NIH portfolio. Surveying publicly available data as well as data obtained through Freedom of Information Act, the authors reported the average age of investigators getting their first Ro1 is at an all time high of 46.

These numbers are in spite of efforts specifically designed to put increased emphasis on funding young scientists. The Levitts reported that since 1982, PIs under age 46 received fewer grants than those over the age of 55 and the median age of PIs over the years 1980 to 2010 rose from 40 to 50.

This figure shows age variation of R01 grantees. The median age grows from 40 to 50, whereas that of the 5% youngest grows from 32 to 37. The average age of first-(FIR) R01 grantees is 6 y more than that of the 5% youngest, and halfway to the median age. Since 1980, US life expectancy has increased by 5 y (64). Credit: (c) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2017). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1609996114

The last time data about the aging PI population of NIH R01 awardees was examined systematically was by Jeremy “Datahound” Berg at the end of 2014. At that time, Berg reported the mean age to obtaining first R01 funding was 42.

In their PNAS study, the Levitt’s went out of their way to deride any suggestion that the increase in age to first Ro1 was due to the younger population of applicants being less qualified pointing out,

“It is unlikely that this occurs because younger PIs are less capable than they were years ago. The few younger PIs hired from a huge pool of candidates suggests they are more capable.”

Scientists on Twitter were quick to add color commentary suggesting that as news of this data spreads, NIH Director’s strategy to support will have to pivot quickly.

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