A Portrait in Gray: What Does an Older STEM Workforce Mean for the Future of Research?

Research
By Kurtis Pivert

The US science and technology workforce is growing older and working longer, according to a new study. After universities ended forced retirement in 1994, more researchers began choosing to stay in the workforce. This has contributed to an increase in the mean age of PhDs (across disciplines), which outpaced the US workforce overall – mean increases of 3.5 vs 3.2 years between 1993 and 2010, respectively.

In their PNAS article Ohio State University economists David M. Blau and Bruce Weinberg project this upward trend will continue. In 2008, the mean age of a US scientist was 48.6 years and Blau and Weinberg are predicting a 2.3-year increase assuming current conditions remain the same. Removing the age barrier and allowing scientists to continue to pursue their work can be beneficial by allowing a lifetime of research and discovery to extend even further. Yet, with all disciplines of science living in an era of limited resources, the article points to this increase in older investigators as a potential challenge to the scientific enterprise.      

Putting a squeeze on the next generation

The growth of researchers choosing to extend their careers could put a squeeze on younger scientists, leaving them with less funding and fewer employment opportunities. With more late-career investigators remaining in their posts later in life, the already limited pool of potential academic positions for researchers just establishing their careers is reduced.  

A tighter funding environment overall, particularly if Congress follows through on the new administration’s proposed NIH cuts, could be exacerbated with older researchers continuing to compete for grants. Data from the Office of Extramural Research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) show the age distribution of principal investigators for R01 grants—previously mainly going to researchers in their early to mid-30s—has widened, with more awards going to late-career scientists. And while success rates for early and mid-career investigators have declined over the past 10 years, those of late-career researchers have increased. 

A reduction in productivity?

The potential for a decline in productivity among researchers later in their career could affect the pace of scientific discovery, the authors argued. 

Even if the reduced output doesn’t materialize, a perception among younger scientists of academic research as a career path with limited opportunities could inhibit future innovation and growth of the scientific enterprise. If the leading future scientists are diverted from reaching their full potential in research, solutions to the current—and future—complex problems across medical and scientific disciplines could be delayed or worse. 

You can access the complete PNAS study here.

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The US science and technology workforce is growing older and working longer, according to a new study. After universities ended forced retirement in 1994, more researchers began choosing to stay in the workforce. This has contributed to an increase in the mean age of PhDs (across disciplines), which outpaced the US workforce overall – mean increases of 3.5 vs 3.2 years between 1993 and 2010, respectively.

In their PNAS article Ohio State University economists David M. Blau and Bruce Weinberg project this upward trend will continue. In 2008, the mean age of a US scientist was 48.6 years and Blau and Weinberg are predicting a 2.3-year increase assuming current conditions remain the same. Removing the age barrier and allowing scientists to continue to pursue their work can be beneficial by allowing a lifetime of research and discovery to extend even further. Yet, with all disciplines of science living in an era of limited resources, the article points to this increase in older investigators as a potential challenge to the scientific enterprise.      

Putting a squeeze on the next generation

The growth of researchers choosing to extend their careers could put a squeeze on younger scientists, leaving them with less funding and fewer employment opportunities. With more late-career investigators remaining in their posts later in life, the already limited pool of potential academic positions for researchers just establishing their careers is reduced.  

A tighter funding environment overall, particularly if Congress follows through on the new administration’s proposed NIH cuts, could be exacerbated with older researchers continuing to compete for grants. Data from the Office of Extramural Research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) show the age distribution of principal investigators for R01 grants—previously mainly going to researchers in their early to mid-30s—has widened, with more awards going to late-career scientists. And while success rates for early and mid-career investigators have declined over the past 10 years, those of late-career researchers have increased. 

A reduction in productivity?

The potential for a decline in productivity among researchers later in their career could affect the pace of scientific discovery, the authors argued. 

Even if the reduced output doesn’t materialize, a perception among younger scientists of academic research as a career path with limited opportunities could inhibit future innovation and growth of the scientific enterprise. If the leading future scientists are diverted from reaching their full potential in research, solutions to the current—and future—complex problems across medical and scientific disciplines could be delayed or worse. 

You can access the complete PNAS study here.