and troubling implications for the future of biomedical research in the United States (NRC, 1998).
A 1997 survey conducted by the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) provides evidence for further concern. When a sample of its membership was asked if they would pursue their doctoral degree if they had it do over again, 31 percent of those who received their degrees in the 1990s would “probably” or “definitely” not do it again. This compares with only 16 percent of those who received degrees in the 1970s (Marincola and Solomon, 1998a; http://www.ascb.org/survey/survey.htm). In addition, data from 2001—the most recent year for which data are available—show a decline in the number of U.S.-trained PhDs in biomedical postdoctoral appointments across all employment sections. Among the reasons cited for this decline are long periods of training with few benefits, the perception that postdoctoral appointments are more like low-paying jobs than training experiences, and poor prospects for independent follow-up positions (NRC, 2005).
Many of the greatest contributions in science were made by those who were independent investigators at an early age. Marshall Nirenberg, for instance, had his own independent lab at NIH when he was just 27 after only 2 years of postdoctoral training, unraveled the genetic code when he was 31, was an NIH section head at 35, and received a Nobel Prize at 41. He was doing risky independent research with intramural support from the NIH in his 20s. In today’s climate, Nirenberg might have received his Nobel Prize before his first NIH grant. Nirenberg is not unique; Stephan and Levin (1993) examined the age at which Nobel laureates in physiology or medicine performed their critical experiments, finding a median age of 38 years. Further, the highest honor in mathematics—the Fields Medal—is awarded only to individuals under age 40. Thus, a researcher in mathematics might reach a career pinnacle before a biomedical researcher has first established independence.
As National Academy of Sciences President Bruce Alberts related in his 2003 President’s Address,
During a period when the total amount of federal funds available to support science at the National Institutes of Health has doubled, it is incredible to me that the average age at which scientists first become funded continues to rise. [In the early 1970s,] many of my colleagues and I were awarded our first independent funding when we were under 30 years old. We did not have preliminary results, because we were trying something completely new. [Now] almost no one finds it possible to start an independent scientific career under the age of 35. Moreover, whereas in 1991 one-third of the principal investigators with NIH funds were under 40, by the year 2002 this fraction had dropped to one-sixth. Even the most talented of our young people seem to be forced to endure several