When researchers won their Nobels was less important than when they had their breakthrough ideas, Matthews said. The researchers found the majority of laureates were below the average age of first-time NIH grant recipients when the Nobel-winning research was conducted.
Overall, the study showed a trend in which the United States risks losing innovative researchers and their research by discouraging promising students from pursuing science disciplines.
Previous studies have found the average age of biomedical researchers receiving their first NIH grants rose from 36 to 41 between 1980 and 2008, while the average age of NIH investigators went from 39 to 51 over the same period.
The authors credited NIH's proactive attitude as the agency tries to tip the balance of research dollars back toward youth. NIH Director Francis Collins has established a task force to create a sustainable and diverse biomedical workforce; one result is a rise in the percentage of grants to new applicants in 2009 and 2010.
Matthews said Elias Zerhouni, NIH director from 2002 to 2008, recognized years ago that the agency needed to put more emphasis on younger researchers or risk wasting their talents.
"He saw the trend but said when he began at the agency, no one believed him," Matthews recalled from a talk Zerhouni gave at the Baker Institute. "He sent social scientists in to crunch the numbers and found that if the trend were to continue, by 2020 the NIH would award more grants to researchers over 70 than under 40. So he started the ball rolling and Collins has picked it up."
Matthews was aware of recent, controversial press over the problem of not enough jobs for newly minted doctors. (Last year, Nature noted: "The world is producing
|Contact: David Ruth|