BioBriefs BETH BAKER The nation’s scientific workforce is people like Einstein, that science is a executed the project” when measuring rapidly getting older, whether mea- young person’s game,” says Weinberg. productivity? Weinberg asks. sured in absolute numbers or when “If a physicist hasn’t made his great He and Blau predict that the aging compared with the US workforce gen- contribution by the time he’s 30, he will continue even after baby boomers erally. What this means for the qual- never will. That was never as true as it exit the stage. “The concern is that this ity of the research enterprise and the sounded, and it’s even less true today.” aging is going to make it harder for careers of young biologists is unclear. Measuring age and creativity is not young researchers to establish inde- A March 2017 study in the simple. One way is to look at the age pendent careers,” says Weinberg. “That Proceedings of the National Academy of when Nobel laureates conducted their is part of what motivated our analysis.” Sciences (PNAS) by economists David most significant research. That was This is what concerns Gary McDowell, M. Blau and Bruce A. Weinberg, of the approach taken by Weinberg and executive director of Future of Research, Ohio State University, found that the Benjamin F. Jones in a 2011 PNAS whose organization works on behalf of average age of PhD scientists was 48.6 study of Nobel winners in physics, postdocs. “The most basic assumption years, compared with 45.1 in 1993. “By chemistry, and medicine. “The age is that this is just a demographics issue 2010, the share of scientific workers at which Nobel laureates were doing and once [baby boomers] retire, then it aged 55+ was much larger than the cor- prize-winning work has gotten older, will be fine,” says McDowell. “The prob- responding share for all workers. Thus, and that’s driven by the amount of lem, though, is there’s such a long queue scientists in 2010 were employed at knowledge people have to master waiting just to get into the cohort. My older ages to a much greater extent than to get to the research frontier,” says generation is not going to be helped by the workforce as a whole,” the study Weinberg. The evidence suggests that a bunch of people retiring soon.” found. The National Science Board’s researchers who do theoretical work The number of postdocs far exceeds Science and Engineering Indicators 2016 (physicists) do better early in their the available academic positions, and found a similar pattern among scien- careers, he adds, and those whose most faculty are not training grad stu- tists with bachelor’s degrees and higher, research is empirical do better later. dents for nonacademic careers (see the both in and outside of the academy. But another 2011 study in PLOS February 2018 Feature for how that is In the PNAS study, for the biology ONE by Rice University researchers changing). “This system requires a vast and life-sciences sector, the average age looking at Nobel laureates in biomedi- supply of cheap labor,” says McDowell. was about 48, roughly in the middle of cine found that the average age was “It’s desperate for people to do this the pack of seven scientific fields. Social younger than today’s NIH principal bench work. It’s a vicious cycle that scientists were the oldest, averaging investigators (PIs). “This suggested that seems to be getting worse.” about 53, and computer and informa- limited access to NIH might inhibit A 2015 paper by McDowell and tion scientists were the youngest, at research potential and novel projects, colleagues in F1000Research summa- 45. “There’s a lot of hand-wringing at and could impact biomedicine and the rized a symposium on “Shaping the NIH [National Institutes of Health] next generation scientists in the United Future of Research.” Among their rec- about biology and the life sciences,” States,” the authors stated. ommendations that might buffer the says Weinberg, “but if anything, the Another way to measure the effect effects of the aging workforce: improve bio/life sciences are slightly younger, of an older scientific workforce is to training of postdocs to better prepare partly, we think, because of postdocs.” look at the age of authors when they them for careers outside academia, Workforce aging is not due solely publish high-impact papers. A 2016 increase accountability for the quality to the bulge of baby boomers. A big study in Science by Roberta Sinatra of training as a requirement of fund- factor came in 1994, when universi- and colleagues found that scientists’ ing approval, and pay postdocs salaries ties ended mandatory retirement. In highest-impact work was randomly that do not depend on PI grants. addition, the research enterprise has distributed throughout their careers Beth Baker (email@example.com) is a freelance shrunk in recent years. and did not relate to age. writer and Features editor of BioScience. Her One concern is that the quality Adding to the complexity is the rela- most recent book is With a Little Help from Our of research will suffer if young, cre- tive creative input of older PIs compared Friends: Creating Community as We Grow ative investigators are less likely to be with that of their younger grad stu- Older (Vanderbilt University Press). published, get grants, and advance. dents and postdocs. “How do you treat “There’s a perception, promoted by the PI versus the person who actually doi:10.1093/biosci/bix151 152 BioScience • February 2018 / Vol. 68 No. 2 https://academic.oup.com/bioscience Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article-abstract/68/2/152/4796570 by Ed 'DeepDyve' Gillespie user on 16 March 2018
BioScience – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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