Lost generation

30 June 2016

Interview with

Alik Widge, Massachusetts General Hospital

Is science in danger of creating a "lost generation" of talented early-career researchers who are exiting the profession in search of more stability and better prospects. Psychiatrist Alik Widge has been interviewing some of the scientists affected...The crisis

Alik - The career difficulty facing young scientists and young academic engineers are probably greater than they have been really in the history of the modern scientific enterprise. This is having some very negative but also very difficult to perceive effects on society and on society's technological progress.

Chris - Well, let's put some numbers on this then. In real terms, what's the scale of the issue?

Alik - To give you a perspective and these are somewhat new eccentric numbers. Since the year 2000, there has been effectively a 50 per cent decrease in the number of research grants awarded by our major funding agency or the national institutes of health. Broadly for my country, the problem is that we've got a drain of the workforce. In 1980, over 20 per cent of scientists holding a major research grant were under age 36. Now, that number has dwindled to 1 to 2 per cent. In right around the 1998 mark, the percentage of major research grant holders who were over age 66 actually crossed and now is approximately 5 to 10 times more than those who are young investigators. There is a whole generation of emerging scientists who are quitting the profession who were unable to launch their labs, begin their careers and we are losing everything that those people might have created.

Chris - Because part of your work has been to speak to some of this lost generation, let's hear first of all from someone who you dub Dr. B. This is spoken by an actor...

Dr. B - The year I finished my PhD, my adviser won a major national award based partly on my work. They called it genius and incredibly innovative. I finished my PhD, spent a few months on a lab to wrap up, and then took my first faculty job at a university across town which was pretty normal for my field. They were excited to hire female engineer. I felt proud of my work. But then, when I tried to take the next step, the funding dried up. The NIH said it was too pre-clinical and the study section wasn't sure it would work. The US National Science Foundation said it was too clinically oriented. Career award reviewers at both agencies felt there wasn't enough evidence of university financial commitment because technically, I was in a soft money job. Nobody was willing to take a risk. We struggled by and I kept applying. I eventually learned that about a half a million US dollars in grants over 6 years, but all that time, I hated the panic of wondering if I will lose my job the next year for a lack of funding. I was on track as far as promotion in tenure was concerned. But even so, I resigned after those 6 years, using the excuse that my family and I had decided to move to another state. We never went. And now, I work full time at a technology start up. I miss the prestige of having a faculty position but I don't miss much else.

Chris - So Alik, how do you react to that transcript?

Alik - What we have is these people who are in the positions where they're supposed to be transitioning to their own laboratory, do a faculty job, to doing their own research. So the senior stage graduate student, the post doctoral scholar who's taken 1 to 2 years post PhD to gain a new skill, what they're seeing over and over again is their mentors and their colleagues do reasonable work, putting in the effort, writing a good proposal, really trying to sell, "Hey, this is my science. This is what it's going to do for the world. May I please have the resources to bring this idea forward?" And being told "No" and not being told "No" again, not because they're doing bad work but because there simply isn't enough to go around. In this situation, one of the things we're observing is that as a result of there not being enough resources to go around, the committees that review these grants had become extremely risk averse. They have really acquired a bias and a preference for funding persons who have previously been funded, who already have basically worked out most of the problem and are just continuing to polish the edges and making the solution shine a bit more and don't get me wrong - that's very good work. It's just that there's a large body of research saying the greatest creativity in science, the big breakthrough ideas, those discoveries come from the youngest minds who still are questioning assumptions and those are the people who are getting discouraged.

Chris - Why do think and what has emerged in the discussions you've had as to why we're in this position because it's not unique to the US? I was in Australia recently. If you look at the success rates of grants in Australia, they're down in single figures, the UK has similarly precipitous grant funding situation. Why are we in this position?

Alik - Fundamentally, governments are not making the investment in their future competitiveness. This is the other part that this comes down to and that...

Chris - But if they're not spending the money on science, what are they spending it on?

Alik - I would love to know that. In the United States, we have a problem of many hidden expenditures to the tax system. We essentially choose not to raise revenue from things we could and that is an expenditure by refusing to collect money. It's almost as though if you give a customer a product for free. But I frame it fundamentally as also a question of, what are we doing relative to what other nations are doing. And this is one thing that we see, is that while the relative share of research and development expenditures in the western world and the English speaking countries is going down, that of Asian nations is going up. In a world where I see so many of the western powers saying they're concerned about their geopolitical relevance, they're concerned about their economies, the fact is, if you want the engines of economic growth, it's these ideas and someone has to pay for them. One of the other points we made is, if you look at total industry spending on basic research and development, and you look at the size of what government does and again, it's US centred numbers, it's the difference between an Earth and a Saturn or a Jupiter. It's just fundamentally not even on the same scale.

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