The “brain drain” of underfunded young investigators leaving academic research has worsened in the near-decade since a National Academy of Sciences blue-ribbon panel identified several hurdles to their success and hints of an exodus from the profession, the leader of the nation’s top NIH-funded research university has cautioned.

Ronald J. Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University, warned that absent policy changes to keep younger researchers in academia, the profession will suffer: New discoveries and therapeutics will evaporate, a generation of future leaders and mentors will be lost, institutions will delay workforce diversity efforts, and investigators will be leaving the field at the point in their careers when they would be most likely to generate disruptive scientific discoveries.

In a “Perspective” article published Monday in the online Early Edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Daniels said the brain drain is reflected in part by the declining share of principal investigators with a leading NIH grant who are 36 years old or younger—from 18% in 1983, to just 3% in 2010.

The average age when a scientist with a medical degree gets his or her first such grant has increased, from just under 38 years old in 1980 to more than 45 in 2013.

Daniels blamed three factors for the decline in research funding for young scientists—longer training periods, a grant system that may favor incumbents, and an increase in the cost of research borne by universities. Many institutions, he wrote, have responded by shying away from younger researchers in favor of investigators with established funding.

“It is not surprising that many of our youngest minds are choosing to leave their positions in academic research for careers in industry, other countries, or outside of science altogether,” Daniels wrote in PNAS. “The departure of young scientists from the academic biomedical workforce in turn poses grave risks for the future of science.”

To avert those risks, Daniels offered several policy proposals intended to retain younger investigators and promote groundbreaking research. They fall into several categories, including:

  • NIH grants—increase spending; fund small pilot projects that can be renewed as full R01 grants if the pilots succeed; and require young researchers to achieve milestones in return for full funding of R01s, as with the Pathway to Independence Award program (K99/R00 or “kangaroo”)

 

  • Review panels—Encourage more senior scientists to serve on panels and study sections; combine and “cross-pollinate” review panels and study sections into broader-focused, better-funded groups; remove a review panel’s highest and lowest scores from consideration for grants.

 

  • Career investment—Create longer-term funding, such as the five- to seven-year grants awarded to investigators by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; enable senior scientists to conclude NIH-supported work and transition into more active mentorship roles for younger R01 applicants.

 

  • Career paths—Create career paths with numerous options, including permanent staff scientist career tracks; limit postdoc funding to five years; relax rules tying faculty advancement to obtaining R01s.

Daniels compared NIH’s Pioneer Award Program (DP1), which typically awards about a dozen such awards to academic faculty members deemed to have visionary potential, with the more expansive Canada Research Chairs initiative.

In 2000, the government of Canada developed a program to create 2,000 new endowed faculty chairs for researchers deemed to have exceptional potential. A portion is set aside for junior faculty. Canada awards about C$265 million ($224 million) annually toward the chairs.

As of October 2014, , according to the program’s website, 1,667 of the chairs had been filled. Of those, 856 were “Tier 2” chairholders receiving C$100,000 ($84,000) annually for five years.

Tier 2 chairholders are younger investigators, defined as “exceptional emerging researchers, acknowledged by their peers as having the potential to lead in their field.” The remaining 811 chairs were “Tier 1” chairholders who received $200,000 ($169,000) annually for seven years, and are “outstanding researchers acknowledged by their peers as world leaders in their fields.” Universities are awarded their chairs based on how much research funding they won in the three years before the year of the allocation.

“A similar role for the U.S. government, one that supports faculty not only during their research successes but throughout their career path, could allay the distortions of an overwhelmingly research grant-based approach, while allowing faculty to spend less time on grant applications, and more time on science,” Daniels concluded.

Johns Hopkins finished the federal fiscal year ending September 30, 2014, with more than $618.6 million in NIH funding, placing it first not only among the nation’s research universities but among all organizations. For the current fiscal year as of December 29, Johns Hopkins led among research universities with $51.3 million, but was outpaced by two other institutions, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (about $61 million) and Brigham and Women’s Hospital ($55.2 million).

Daniels’ article included among its footnotes a 2013 GEN Exclusive report detailing how young researchers were coping with the NIH funding squeeze by seeking alternative sources for their research dollars.