Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Ageism in Science

 
I'd like to address a thorny issue; namely, discrimination on the basis of age. The focus of this particular posting is the widespread belief that "young" investigators are more valuable to the research community than "old" ones.

By "young" I mean scientists who have graduated with a Ph.D. and completed several years of post-doc. They are either about to be hired as principle investigators for the first time or have already been hired within the past 7 years. Typically, they are under 40 years old and if they have a university position it will be as an Assistant Professor. They do not have tenure.

"Old," or senior, investigators are those over 40. There are two sub-categories: those between the ages of 40 and 55 who are thought to be in their prime and those over 55 who are thought to be well past their prime.

I was prompted to bring up this issue by the recent funding crisis in Canada and especially by some comments made in an open letter from Alan Bernstein, the President of CIHR (but see Old Professors). Alan's opinion, as expressed in the letter, is not that much different from the opinion of most of my colleagues. The difference is that Alan is in a position to act on his view of Canadian scientists. He can redirect funding.

Here's what Alan says about young investigators,
I am very concerned about the impact this situation will have on all members of the research community - new investigators, mid-level established investigators and Canada's most senior researchers. And I am particularly concerned about the impact on new investigators who are at the beginning of their careers. These new investigators represent the future of health research in Canada. Failure to secure grant support for their research in those critical first years can have a lasting detrimental effect on their subsequent careers. Clearly, all of us need to think about how to improve the situation for the very group of investigators who are bringing their energy, superb training and new approaches to health research.
At first glance this seems like a typical harmless motherhood statement that nobody questions. After all, doesn't everyone agree that youth represents the future? Doesn't everyone agree that energy and new approaches come from young investigators and not from old ones? Doesn't everyone agree that failure to get a grant can threaten the careers of young investigators?

Yes and no. There's a lot more going on than what's implied by such facile statements. Let's try and unpack Alan's paragraph and see what we can learn.

Like Alan, I am very concerned about the impact of the funding crisis on all members of the research community. Unlike Alan, I don't reserve any special concerns for young investigators at the expense of older ones. The loss of a grant in the middle of a promising career is just as devastating as the failure to get one in the first place. Perhaps more so, since the mid-career investigator has a lab full of graduate students, post-docs, and research assistants who have to be let go or moved. Given the choice between funding a mid-career investigator with a decent publication track record and a young investigator with no track record, why should we favor the unproven over the proven? Does such a bias make sense?

I question the common belief that young investigators represent the "future" of research. It suggests that a 45-year old doesn't have a future even though they may still have 20-30 years of productive research ahead of them.

Are young investigators more energetic? Perhaps, but I know lots of enthusiastic and energetic investigators who are no longer young. Besides, wisdom and maturity can often beat out energy in a head-to-head competition to do good research.

What about the idea that youth is more innovative? Is there any truth to that myth? Not really. There are lots and lots of senior investigators who are right up there on the cutting edge of science. I daresay there's more innovative work done in the labs of senior investigators than in the labs of young investigators, at least in my field. Part of this is due to the system. You can't take too many risks until you've become established. Part of it is due to experience. Experience is a good teacher—you can see productive new directions once you've mastered the old ones.

None of this means we should abandon young investigators in favor of senior investigators. But, by the same token, we shouldn't sacrifice senior investigators in order to fund younger ones. The excuses used to promote the "youth" strategy need to be questioned to see if they are truly valid. I don't think they are.

In the recent grant competitions, there was a tilt toward funding young investigators at the expense of renewing the grants of senior investigators. That's not right. It's discrimination on the basis of age and it must stop now.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I am not competing for grants from any granting agency. I do not have a direct stake in this issue other than to promote what's good for research and good for my colleagues. If we don't have enough money to support our current crop of researchers then it's stupid to hire more.)

6 comments :

  1. It also occurs to me that an older researcher is likely to be more seasoned, more likely to know the hidden traps in his/her profession, which is an asset in itself.

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  2. While there certainly are exceptions to the rule that older scientists are less productive (it has been attested by Crick's co-authors that he was editing a paper on his deathbed, for example), do you really doubt that older people *in general* do less science?

    In part this is because of the tenure system. Yes, tenure protects radical researchers from oppression; but an awful lot of researchers take tenure as an excuse *not* to continue to be active researchers. And that *does* hurt science. If someone stops doing research, they should step aside for others.

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  3. Jonathan Badger says,

    In part this is because of the tenure system. Yes, tenure protects radical researchers from oppression; but an awful lot of researchers take tenure as an excuse *not* to continue to be active researchers. And that *does* hurt science. If someone stops doing research, they should step aside for others.

    What are you advocating? Are you saying that anyone who loses a grant should be fired? Are there no other ways of being scholarly if you don't have a grant? Are there no other ways of contributing the university?

    You are illustrating the very thing that I oppose. I do not have a research grant and I do not run a laboratory. Do you think I should step aside? If so, please explain why.

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  4. What are you advocating? Are you saying that anyone who loses a grant should be fired?

    Well, not fired and not *just* for "losing a grant" -- like being unemployed, being grantless may be a temporary situation soon to be remedied. But why should someone who was hired to do research as part of their job still keep the same job years after they've ceased to be active researchers?


    Are there no other ways of being scholarly if you don't have a grant? Are there no other ways of contributing the university?

    Of course there are other ways. Many people teach, for example. But a young person who only teaches is not generally offered a professorship at a major research university. Instead, they are offered position as a lecturer or something similar (at a smaller salary and without the security of tenure). It would seem only fair that a professor who has become in essence a lecturer to become one formally and resign the greater security and pay given to a professor. Equal positions for equal work.

    You are illustrating the very thing that I oppose. I do not have a research grant and I do not run a laboratory. Do you think I should step aside? If so, please explain why.

    Well, if no longer have laboratory space, I'll admit that you aren't as bad as some other older scientists I know (who kept their decades unused lab of dusty glassware tied up until the day they retired). But still, if you retired, wouldn't your department probably replace you by an young assistant professor who would be expected to do research?

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  5. Jonathan Badger, you are making an assumption that I challenge.

    You are assuming that the only legitimate way for a university science Professor to conduct scholarly activity is by having a large grant and running a lab.

    You are using the world "research" in a very restrictive way and that distorts your view of the situation.

    But that's only a minor part of the problem. We currently have a system where mid-career scientists lose their grants in favor of young investigators. If we fire all the 50 year olds who lose their grants then who in their right mind would choose such a career in the first place?

    Under such a system, you start making a decent salary when you're 35 years old and by the time you're 50 you don't have a job. Is that what you want?

    Why are we discriminating on the basis of age?

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  6. You are assuming that the only legitimate way for a university science Professor to conduct scholarly activity is by having a large grant and running a lab.

    Actually, some research could probably get by without a lab or grants. Pretty much the main use of grants in phylogeny/bioinformatics (if you aren't generating your own data) is to pay the salaries/stipends of postdocs and grad students.

    But if you use sequences out of GenBank and do the work without the aid of postdocs or grad students, you could do some interesting (& publishable) work without a grant. There's a lot of interesting questions that could be addressed just using publicly available data.

    But that's only a minor part of the problem. We currently have a system where mid-career scientists lose their grants in favor of young investigators. If we fire all the 50 year olds who lose their grants then who in their right mind would choose such a career in the first place?

    Well, 1) I don't think anyone is suggesting firing anyone; I've probably suggested the most extreme suggestion -- moving the non-active researchers to a lectureship. Most people are simply talking about offering incentives for early retirement and the like.

    2) Most jobs (even scientific ones) have no such thing as "tenure" and yet people still take them. For example, I work at a research institute where even the PIs have no tenure. Yet, whenever there's a job opening we have plenty of people giving interview seminars.

    Under such a system, you start making a decent salary when you're 35 years old and by the time you're 50 you don't have a job. Is that what you want?

    Well, under the current system an awful lot of people that I've known (including people that I consider to have been better scientists than myself) have gotten stuck in the postdoc loop and finally left science in disgust after their third postdoc stint because they can't find a faculty position -- I'm not sure how that's any better.

    Why are we discriminating on the basis of age?

    We shouldn't. Discriminating on the basis of productivity ... well, that's different.

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