A call for NIH youth movement Wariness greets congressman’s proposal to require agency to reduce average age at first grant

In with the old, out with the young NIH-funded investigators eligible for retirement now outnumber those under 36. 20% Age 36 and younger Age 66 and older 10%

















10 OCTOBER 2014 • VOL 346 ISSUE 6206

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epresentative Andy Harris (R–MD) spent 12 years as a physicianresearcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, before venturing into politics. He likes to note that he is the only serving member of Congress who has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And he believes that experience gives him practical insight into the plight of young biomedical scientists, who now are often in their 40s before they win their first NIH grant. Last week, Harris offered a radical solution to this graying of U.S. biomedical science: Congress should order NIH to reduce the average age at which new investigators receive their first grant by 4 years within a decade, he argued in an opinion piece in The New York Times. “I saw firsthand how the most innovative thinking frequently came from younger scientists,” he wrote, warning that current NIH practices are damping innovation. He has drafted a bill to turn his prescription into law. The idea is getting a wary reception from research advocates. “Mandating NIH to come up with a specific outcome is a dangerous and risky position … given the complexity of the situation,” says Howard Garrison, deputy executive director for policy for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland.

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Harris, 57, a conservative who represents a semirural district in Maryland, spent his early career as an obstetric anesthesiologist and division chief at Hopkins. Starting at age 30, he became a co-investigator on three successive NIH grants studying cerebral blood flow in the developing fetus. At the time, the age distribution of Harris’s peers who were principal investigators (PIs) winning their first grant clustered around the late 30s. But today, he notes, the median age at which a Ph.D. researcher receives his or her first NIH R01, the agency’s bread-andbutter grant, has increased to 42, up from an average of 36 in 1980. The biomedical community has long lamented the rising age of first-time investigators, which many attribute to ever-longer graduate studies and postdocs and a dearth of new faculty positions. In 2008, then-NIH Director Elias Zerhouni crafted a policy ensuring that “early stage investigators” (defined as those no more than 10 years out from finishing their Ph.D. or medical residency) have the same success rate as established investigators submitting a new grant. Many NIH institutes achieve this by setting a more generous “payline” for proposals from new applicants. The policy helped stop but not reverse the rise in the average age for first R01s for Ph.D. researchers. Although NIH is aware of the problem, Harris says the agency “does not have a serious plan to fix it.” Simply giving NIH

By Jocelyn Kaiser

Percent of R01 PIs

Akasaki and Amano, working together at Nagoya University, tried different ways of growing the semiconductor crystal and made the first breakthrough, coaxing faint blue light from a gallium nitride semiconductor in 1986. While Akasaki and Amano continued improving their blue LED, Nakamura, who then had only a master’s degree and was working at Nichia Corp., a maker of phosphors located in a small town in rural Shikoku, pursued his own effort. He tried different ways of growing the needed gallium nitride layers and in 1993 got a device emitting very bright, very blue light. Japanese politicians heaped praise on the trio on evening newscasts. But Nakamura may have mixed feelings. He had a falling out with Nichia and after a nasty legal spat won a share of the profits the company earned from his invention. He also decided to move to PHYSICS NOBEL the United States after failing to find an aca“for the invention of demic position in Jaefficient blue lightemitting diodes which pan. During a January has enabled bright 2005 press conference and energy-saving after the settlement white light sources” of his suit, Nakamura Isamu Akasaki blasted Japan’s courts, educational system, Hiroshi Amano and treatment of reShuji Nakamura searchers (Science, 21 January 2005, p. 337). “Basically, Japanese society doesn’t value the contributions of individuals,” he said. He is now an American citizen. The breakthroughs initiated a stillongoing revolution in lighting. LED lighting is far more efficient than previous forms of lighting, which involve heating a filament or a gas and waste most of the input energy. “With 20% of the world’s electricity used for lighting, it’s been calculated that optimal use of LED lighting could reduce this to four per cent. Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura’s research has made this possible and this prize recognises this contribution,” said Frances Saunders, president of the U.K. Institute of Physics, in a statement. “This is physics research that is having a direct impact on the grandest of scales, helping protect our environment, as well as turning up in our everyday electronic gadgets.” LEDs’ efficiency also means that they can be run on low-cost solar power and simple batteries, bringing light to the 1.5 billion people who are not connected to energy grids. The usefulness of this invention is something that would make Alfred Nobel “really happy about this prize,” said Per Delsing, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics. ■


more money won’t help, he argues: The proportion of NIH grants going to young scientists dropped even during the 1999 to 2003 doubling of the NIH budget and didn’t increase after NIH received a burst of funding from the 2009 stimulus spending. To devise a legislative solution, Harris says he spent a year and a half meeting with biomedical leaders, including regular interactions with NIH Director Francis Collins. The result: a draft bill (shared with Science) that says the NIH director “shall ensure” that the median age of investigators receiving their first R grant (which includes R01s and other research grants) falls to under 40 by 2019; under 39 by 2022; and under 38 by 2025. To prime the fountain of youth, Harris— who serves on the spending panel that oversees NIH’s budget—wouldn’t divert money from existing grants. Instead, he would redirect a pool of about $700 million (in 2013)— known as the tap—that NIH hands over to its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, for other activities. A separate draft bill would channel this funding to the NIH director’s office, to be used for “emerging scientists”—defined as those who finished their training within the last 15 years and are seeking their first or second research grant. Harris hopes the two bills will become part of legislation expected to emerge early next year from a bipartisan effort in the U.S. House of Representatives— known as 21st Century Cures—to support NIH and speed drug development. NIH officials are hesitant. Sally Rockey, the agency’s deputy director for extramural research, says Harris’s mandate might not achieve much unless scientists’ training can be shortened so that more are ready to compete for NIH grants at a younger age. For now, there may be too few proposals coming from scientists in their 30s to meet Harris’s targets without dramatically propping up their success rates, says Jeremy Berg of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, a former director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. “You really need to look at what’s driving the numbers and understand the whole system before doing things that might be harmful in the long run,” he says. Too much special treatment for young researchers could create problems down the road, worries Jessica Polka, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School in Boston. “The glut of new [young] PIs would only further strain the funding system in the future,” she predicts. Harris stands by his plan. Researchers “at the age of peak innovation” deserve “a leg up,” he says. And “if they continue to have good ideas … they will be able to compete.” ■

A son and his sick father in Monrovia.


Imagining Ebola’s next move As containment efforts fall short, scientists look beyond the models to envision how the epidemic might unfold By Kai Kupferschmidt


hen a traveler from Liberia came down with Ebola in Dallas on 24 September, it was a warning to the world: As the number of cases in West Africa keeps rising, so does the risk the disease will spread beyond Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. The United States was the third country, after Nigeria and Senegal, to catch a spark from the growing conflagration; it was followed by Spain, which reported the first case of Ebola contracted outside of Africa on 6 October. The patient, a nurse, had taken care of a priest who became infected in Sierra Leone. None of these cases has triggered a widespread outbreak, and most experts are confident that wealthy nations can contain introduced cases. “My first reaction was: Well, it had to be somewhere. Better Dallas than Mumbai,” says Peter Sandman, an adviser on risk communication based in Brooklyn, New York, about the U.S. case. But developing countries may not be so lucky when Ebola arrives on their doorstep. That could result in entirely new chapters in the disease’s spread. On 3 October, the World Health Organization (WHO) had reported 7470 cases and 3431 deaths in the three affected countries. Those numbers, believed to be gross underestimates, are rising exponentially, and models show they could reach the hundreds of thousands in a matter of months. But models can’t forecast unpredictable things like viral mutations, changes in human behavior, the impact of new vaccines and drugs, or


where and how the disease will next become entrenched. So researchers are looking beyond the models, and at possible scenarios, to prepare for what might happen. Scientists are naturally loath to speculate, Sandman says, but “risk communication and crisis communication are all about what-ifs.” On the optimistic picture, an effective vaccine could finally check the rise in cases— something classic control methods such as isolation and quarantine have failed to do. Without a vaccine, “I think the best we can hope for is that the spread slows down a little bit,” says Alessandro Vespignani, a physicist at Northeastern University in Boston who has modeled the spread of the Ebola virus. “Increasing public health measures will have a huge impact, but I believe it has gotten to the stage where we will need a vaccine as well to stop this outbreak,” says Jeremy Farrar, an epidemiologist who heads the Wellcome Trust in London. One candidate vaccine is already in phase I safety tests, and another will be soon; at a meeting at WHO on 29 and 30 September, experts discussed how to speed vaccine development and how to cope with the thorny ethical issues involved in testing a vaccine for efficacy in the affected countries ( But those tests are unlikely to start until January, and they may not yield results until April. In the meantime, some researchers fear the virus could mutate. In an op-ed piece in The New York Times on 11 September, Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, 10 OCTOBER 2014 • VOL 346 ISSUE 6206

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Biomedical Research. A call for NIH youth movement.

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