When newly recognized Nobel laureate Katalin Karikó was doing research in the 1990s that eventually led to mRNA vaccines, she had a hard time getting funding for her work. Her university told her to drop the research or else, at age 40, lose her faculty position. She chose the demotion. People, often older men, prioritize power over progress and complicate finding solutions to scientific problems, she told The Guardian in 2021.
Young scientists today, thankfully, are not Olympic athletes, because they would only be funded to train and compete when they reach their 40s — sitting on the bench for many of their prime years. Data from the National Institutes of Health show that in 2020, the median age for principal investigators receiving their first NIH research project grant was 42. In 1995, that number was 38 for men and 39 for women.
This trend hints at a larger problem. Academia has been captured by its own hierarchy, where older researchers more easily receive funding to reinforce and build upon their own prior research. More scientific innovation in our society could occur if young scientists, who have more incentive to take risks, feel that academia welcomes their ideas and funds research that disrupts the status quo.
Indeed, younger scientists tend to be more innovative. A 2022 study by a team of economists analyzed more than 5 million academic articles in the biomedical field. They found that research quality — defined by interdisciplinarity, impact across fields, and use of the latest and best ideas and research — declines over a scientist’s career. Although young scientists indeed need a minimum level of training and experience, the age trends reveal other, less-than-reasonable obstacles faced by early-career researchers.
Innovation requires risk. Those who have little status to lose, with less previous research to defend, may be more willing to test new concepts and challenge old ones. Yet as scientists grow older and build their careers around a body of research, challenging the status quo could mean challenging the career itself.
Reviewers of academic journals also play a part in maintaining established ideas. “When papers get published, I think it just becomes naturally difficult to go against what has been claimed,” said Jingcheng Ma, a chemical engineer and postdoctoral scholar at the University of Chicago, when I spoke with him recently. (Ma and I are both members of physical chemist Bozhi Tian’s research lab.) When he submitted a paper to challenge a published article’s conclusion, he said that the journal reviewers focused on what they said was a lack of novelty in the revised explanation. The already published article had authority, and those reviewers had no incentive to check whether its conclusions could be inaccurate, Ma explained.
In that sense, the mere appearance of novelty, rather than true innovation, can bring a scientist success with receiving funding. Although “innovation” is one of five criteria when assessing NIH grant applications, its definition includes refinements and improvements, allowing researchers’ applications to score highly even when proposing to pursue incremental progress for their existing research. And journal reviewers may push a field toward one direction depending on their biases, making that topic more popular, Ma told me. Researchers who follow along accrue publications.
Another incentive for sticking to incremental research that focuses on an established body of knowledge is the high cost of funding innovation. Grant applicants with ideas and a publishing plan that seem risky may have a harder time receiving consensus from the multiple reviewers involved. In fact, when examining the tension between tradition and innovation in scientific research, a 2015 article in the American Sociological Review concluded that pursuing innovation generally lacks enough upside for researchers to justify the risks. From analyzing millions of biomedical abstracts on Medline, the authors find support for their claim that most published findings are “expected and unsurprising.”
This scientific environment rewards the older and more established, not younger and more innovative, scientists. Aware of the advantages given to older researchers, the NIH launched the High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, with two grants for early-stage investigators. Yet these are small steps towards restoring younger leadership in academia; they are not yet giant leaps for innovation. Rather, the structure of mainstream scientific funding must change at its root.
One good model for funding innovation is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Of the few papers I found on this topic, a 2015 institutional analysis by MIT researchers shows that from 1997 to 2008, the agency outperformed all other granting agencies in terms of an award turning into a patent — a proxy for innovation. While nearly 13 percent of DARPA’s awards to MIT faculty led to patents, only 3 percent of NIH and National Science Foundation grants did so.
According to the MIT study, DARPA has many unique characteristics as a funding organization: The very mission of DARPA focuses on disruption; grant awards, as contracts, demand unrealistically high performance measures that are continually reviewed throughout the project; the possibility of DARPA cutting funding midway through the project demands achieving checkpoints throughout; DARPA’s award, typically higher than grants from NSF and NIH, allows researchers to buy expensive lab equipment they otherwise may not access.
Yet beyond looking to mimic the most innovative agency, funding organizations such as the NSF and NIH should conduct and publish internal research on how often innovative versus incremental scientific work happens in order to hold themselves accountable for where most of their funding goes. And they should more seriously consider how they can make academia more welcoming to young scientists — who want to do something beyond the expected and unsurprising.
Many famous scientists made their groundbreaking contributions in their 20s and 30s. Albert Einstein published his annus mirabilis papers in his 20s; Niels Bohr proposed his model of the hydrogen atom at age 28; Marie Curie pioneered her radioactivity research in her early 30s; Rosalind Franklin made key discoveries to the DNA structure while also in her early 30s. But today’s scientists of those ages can barely get started.
Aman Majmudar is a senior at the University of Chicago. His writing has appeared in The Scientist, Times Higher Education, and other outlets.