In a recent PLoS One paper, researchers at Rice University show that of the 96 scientists who won a Nobel Prize in medicine or chemistry for work related to biomedicine between 1980 and 2010, 78 percent conducted their winning research before the age of 51 — the average age of an NIH principal investigator in 2008. Because of this, the team suggests that "limited access to NIH [funding] might inhibit ... potential and novel projects, and could impact biomedicine and the next generation scientists in the United States."
As a result, the team suggests that "policymakers need to continue to encourage NIH investment in new investigators through increased funding of their research and by extending more offers of faculty positions at academic institutions," to retain promising young talent. "Furthermore, attention should be paid to how PhD programs are managed, including monitoring the number of students admitted each year to more effectively match the supply with the demand for jobs," the group adds. (In April 2011, the agency established an external working group to assess the biomedical workforce in the US. Among its responsibilities, "the working group will help lay the foundation for ensuring that we have the biomedical workforce we will need to usher in the next generation of scientific discoveries," NIH Director Francis Collins said at the time.)
The Rice team adds that though their research efforts to date "cannot determine if the rise in the average age of new investigators or PIs will directly affect future innovation or the proportion of US recipients awarded the Nobel Prize, we do believe it could influence the number of scientists entering and staying in biomedical research positions in academia." To this, the group says further research to determine the number of scientists leaving the field during early-career stages is required.
"If nothing is done to reverse the rising age of PIs and first-time grantees, the scientific community could lose a generation of researchers, leading to an unsustainable biomedical research infrastructure and a dearth of talent participating in NIH-funded projects in the near future," the team concludes.