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Science Policy

The Aging of Biomedical Research in the United States
Published: Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Author: Kirstin R. W. Matthews et al.

by Kirstin R. W. Matthews, Kara M. Calhoun, Nathan Lo, Vivian Ho

In the past 30 years, the average age of biomedical researchers has steadily increased. The average age of an investigator at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) rose from 39 to 51 between 1980 and 2008. The aging of the biomedical workforce was even more apparent when looking at first-time NIH grantees. The average age of a new investigator was 42 in 2008, compared to 36 in 1980. To determine if the rising barriers at NIH for entry in biomedical research might impact innovative ideas and research, we analyzed the research and publications of Nobel Prize winners from 1980 to 2010 to assess the age at which their pioneering research occurred. We established that in the 30-year period, 96 scientists won the Nobel Prize in medicine or chemistry for work related to biomedicine, and that their groundbreaking research was conducted at an average age of 41—one year younger than the average age of a new investigator at NIH. Furthermore, 78% of the Nobel Prize winners conducted their research before the age of 51, the average age of an NIH principal investigator. This suggested that limited access to NIH might inhibit research potential and novel projects, and could impact biomedicine and the next generation scientists in the United States.