Age Distributions for NIH New Investigators and Early Stage Investigators

Dec 03 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the most quoted statistics about the NIH is that the average age of an investigator receiving their first R01 is approximately 42. The increasing age of "New Investigators" has been the cause of considerable concern across NIH and the scientific community. When I was at NIH, many realized that the definition of "New Investigator" as someone who had not previously received substantial NIH funding led to a quite heterogeneous group. New Investigators, who many imagined as scientists in the early stages of their careers also included senior scientists who came from other fields (where their research support had come from NSF and other non-NIH agencies) or from other situations (such as from other countries) where their research had been supported by other agencies. NIH did some internal analysis that revealed that approximately half of the "new investigators" were in the early stages of their careers while the other half were more senior. This led to the definition of an "early stage investigator" or ESI as someone who was within 10 years of their terminal degree or the end of their clinical training.

As my readers have likely discovered, I feel that single statistics such as "an average age of 42" is dangerous to interpret without looking at the data and distributions that underlie such figures. After searching online and asking several sources at NIH if data about the age distributions were publicly available without success, I filed a request to the NIH through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on October 12 requesting available age data for New Investigators and ESIs for fiscal years 2006 through the present. Today, I received an email with an attached spreadsheet responsive to my request.

The spreadsheet contains New Investigator data from FY2006 through FY2013 and ESI data from FY2009 through FY2013. The data has a few limitations. First, the age distributions below 31 and below and 55 and above are binned. Second, cells that would contain fewer than 10 are left blank. While this is to protect the anonymity of individuals who would fall in these cells, I am not sure how this applies here. Third, age data are not available for approximately 8-10% of these grantees.

The age distributions for New Investigators are shown below:

New Investigator plot

This plot shows relatively little change from Fy2006 to FY2013. The medians calculated from these data are shown below:

2006 40.4
2007 40.6
2008 40.6
2009 41.1
2010 40.9
2011 41.2
2012 41.3
2013 41.0

These values support the conclusion that little change has occurred.

The age distributions for Early Stage Investigators are shown below:

ESI Plot

These distributions also show relatively little change. The distributions are approximately Gaussian with relatively skew, suggesting that the limit of being within 10 years of the terminal degree is not having a dramatic effort.

The medians for these distributions are shown below:

2009 37.6
2010 37.6
2011 38.4
2012 38.6
2013 38.0

Again, relatively little change has occurred; if anything, the median age appears to have increased slightly over this period.

Finally, the availability of both distributions allows the calculation of the distributions for non-ESI New Investigators. The missing ESI data (due to cells with fewer than 10 grantees) were estimated by fitting Gaussians to the distributions. The curves for ESI and non-ESI New Investigators are compared below:


The curves for non-ESI New Investigators are skewed with one, relatively steep, arm with a halfway point slightly above age 40 and the other more gradual arm with a halfway point near 50. The medians for the non-ESI New Investigators are shown below:

2009 45.4
2010 45.1
2011 46.6
2012 45.9
2013 46.2

The medians here appear to have move up approximately 1 year over this period.

One final parameter of interest is the percentage of New Investigators who are ESIs. NIH had discussed trying to substantial increase this percentage over time. These percentages are shown below:

2009 50.1
2010 46.9
2011 54.5
2012 57.1
2013 54.0

The percentage does appear to have increase to some extent over this period although the increase is relatively modest.

I welcome your thoughts about these data and what they might suggest in terms of the success of current or potential new NIH policies.

25 responses so far

  • Established PI says:

    Wow, lots to mull over - thanks for obtaining this, Datahound. My first thought has to do with your comment about finding a way to substantially increase the percentage of new investigators who are ESIs. It seems to me that the NIH should be looking at the total NUMBER, not the percentage. As you showed, there are quite a few "new" investigators who are new to NIH funding (at least as a PI) but not likely to be new to obtaining grant funding of some sort (NSF, HHMI, institutional, foreign). If I am reading the graph correctly (the red lines are hard to distinguish), there is a fair amount of fluctuation from one year to the next in the number of non-ESI new investigators, which could skew the percentages of New investigators who are also ESIs. It seems to me that focusing on increasing the number of grants to ESIs and boosting their success rate should be the goal. I am sure you have something about ESI success rates on another one of your pasts but it is getting late here....

  • OK, so maybe I'm confused b/c of the late hour, but:
    When you say "relatively little change has occurred"

    a) you split the data into ESI and non-ESI, and
    b) ESI is defined as <10yrs from terminal degree and
    c) old folks (mostly) don't go to graduate school

    then how could the data have looked any different b/w '09-13? Say that every ESI that applied got their grants, the shape of the # of ESI vs. Age graph would look exactly the same as it does here, wouldn't it?

    • datahound says:

      David: It is late but one thing that could have changed is the point within the 10 year window that ESIs get their grants. It could have been that more ESIs got R01s earlier within the 10 year window. One of the goals of having a 10-year limit was encouraging institutions to hire folks earlier and having ESI apply earlier to take advantage of as many chances within the window as possible.

  • eeke says:

    Is the age distribution the same between men and women?

  • Ola says:

    So if the median for NIs to get first grant is age 41, then that means half of all NIs who get a grant get it before they're 41. That somehow sounds a lot matter than the old "average age before 1st grant is 42" chestnut. It would be interesting to look into why the median has not really changed, but the average (presumably the mean) has crept up over the years.

  • qaz says:

    Datahound - 2006 is too late for this issue. The "average age is 42 and that's too old" starts way before 2006. (It was already a big issue in 2000 when I started my lab.)

    What I would really like to see is these distributions over the last 40 years (say since 1975). As has been discussed extensively over in DrugMonkey's blog and elsewhere, the real issue here is the generational issue of the baby boomers, the lost generation (GenX) in between, and the baby boomer's kids (the Millenials, I guess). The baby boomers filled up the slots, and it's been pretty stably difficult since the early 1990s. Has the age of first grant changed at all since 1990?

    Another important issue is to show these data controlling for proportion of the population that is each different age. Even today, there is a large excess due to the different sizes of the generations.

    • datahound says:

      I agree that this issues stated much earlier. Unfortunately, NIH tracked only "New Investigators" prior to 2009 so it will be hard to make sense of the data. I will see what I can get my hands on.

      • qaz says:

        Also, is there any way to control for population size?

        • datahound says:

          I am not sure I follow what you are asking. It would certainly be interesting to see the age distribution for the applicant pool (which would correct for population size indirectly). Unfortunately, I have never seen these data within NIH or publicly available.

          • qaz says:

            Because there were more people in the baby boom than in previous or subsequent generations, the US population is skewed atypically (and has been for decades). If you look at the distribution of the age of R01 funded people (*), there is an 'extra bump' around age 30-40 in the late 1980s, 40-50 in the 1990s etc. (They are 60 now.) If you simply report the number of people funded at each age (or take the weighted average), then your data is not controlling for distribution of the population.

            What really matters is the percentage, right?

            It also means that if we want to understand WHY we are seeing these effects (like average ages of first R01), we want to know whether something is changed in the current system or whether this is simply a consequence of demographics.

            * I saw this in some NIH slideshow report a few years ago (maybe DrugMonkey remembers this - it was discussed on his website a few years ago). I have been unable to track it down again.

          • drugmonkey says:

            Exactly qaz. Did the Baby Boomers squeeze us out or are we just a smaller generation that is represented in approximately fair proportions. I known which one you and I bet on but we don't really know the data.

  • E rook says:

    This kinda tells me that I am screwed. My clock will run out before I reach the 25th percentile of this age distribution. I was wayyyy too young to be offered and accept this job. In fact, if I quit my appointment and do a 2 year post doc and start over, I'd still have time to hit the median. I am scared out of my freaking mind.

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  • MorganPhD says:

    Quick question: Does this data only include new R01's or any R-equivalent grant? For example, are all of the 31 and under folks those with K99-R00 grants, or are these folks with an R01?

    • Peye says:

      This includes only R01s. The under 31 group would be much bigger if it included K99/R00.

      I got my first R01 as ESI at 31 in 2013. ~10 at my age or lower NIH-wide sounds about right.

    • Datahound says:

      These are R01 equivalent which means R01s and DP2 (New Innovator Awards). R00 awards are not included.

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  • My first R01 submission was reviewed last week, and I'm feeling nervous. I'm 34. I'll be 37 when I lose ESI (i.e. below the median award age).

    The ESI data suggest that about 86 ESI awards (13% of total ESI awards) go to those <=34 years of age. 13% doesn't sound good but it's impossible to know what this actually means without the population data qaz was asking about. If only 100 <=34 year old PIs submit this year, then I'm in super good shape. I understand you don't have the data for applicants.

    The only thing we can really conclude is that through some combination of a) bias against the young guns in study section and b) the young guns not applying in the first place, the median ages are higher than we'd like.

    • Spiny Norman says:

      You get as long as a NI as anyone else. As DM says above, being younger is GOOD.

      The chart is probably not showing study section discrimination against young investigators, but rather longer times in grad school and postdocs — people are obtaining their independent positions, and applying for their first RO1 at later ages.

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