A sentence to ponder

The average age to receive NIH research grants has gone from 38 in 1980 to 51 today.

That is Ben McNeil, via Arnold Kling.


How does that compare with the average age to receive tenure in US research universities?

The real issue is that most universities had mandatory retirement by age 70 in 1980. In 1993 the special exemption to age discrimination that universities had was removed. Various stats I have seen claim that a typical elite university went from 10% of faculty staying on after 70 (with special arrangements) to 60% staying on after 70, and 15% after age 80.

The article mentions a huge increase in grants to recipients over seventy, but doesn't mention the retirement issue and associated massive increase in the population of older faculty. For good or ill, it should not be ignored as part of the reason.

Good point.

It might also be that the same researchers are getting the grants, 20 years apart.

They either get bought out or dragged out in coffin.

I ask for a simple numerical fact and no one provides it. This must be an economics blog.

Or maybe people just don't listen to you, or don't want to do your googling for you.

So that means you need more research experience in order to qualify for a grant in 2010. I am not sure how good/bad that is. The thing is, at 51 you only have 15 years left in your carreer, so I wonder what is the incentive the develop "ground-breaking" research at 51.

Us Baby Boomers intend to dominate until we are on our death beds.

For example, the evidence suggests that youngish-to middle aged candidates do better in recent Presidential elections (Clinton, GWB, Obama), but the GOP keeps nominating candidates 65 or over (Bush I, Dole, McCain, Romney). Does anybody learn from this record? Nah, everybody assumes it's inevitable that Hillary, who will be 69 on election day 2016 is the rightful heir to the throne.

Who would want to risk saying that it's time for Baby Boomers to start shoving off? We're massive in numbers, well-educated, well-ensconced, and have more generational identity than anybody else.

One thing that the Baby Boomers have going for them is that they lived through a shift in lifestyle and cultural views on age. 50's the new 40, particularly among the wealthy, educated and elite. One consequence of this change is that it takes longer for people to get a solid career started, because unfortunately for Millennials 30's also the new 20. Baby Boomers got the good end on both sides: they started their careers when younger was the norm and they could move up quickly. But by the time they aged into what was traditionally career twilight, views on age shifted. Essentially they've been "in their prime" for far longer than the norm, enjoying unsustainably long and prosperous careers. All of this affords their generation an unusual amount of wealth, power and influence.

All of which would be fine, because ultimately I'd also like to avoid being shoved off to the home to play shuffleboard on my 65th birthday. But what's genuinely very annoying is that Boomers tend to scoff at Millennials as being lazy, incompetent and entitled. (As well as dismissing prior generations as being bigoted, narrow-minded and uncreative). Many Boomers genuinely think that their generational success was truly due to their own merit, rather than being attributable to living through a major demographic and cultural transition.

Hilary's a good example, because her career wouldn't have been possible without this double-sided extension. Bill was elected governor of Arkansas at the age of 32. Ten years younger than the youngest governor in the country today. He went on to become president, and Hilary's sole job was First Lady, until the age of 54 when she started a real political career from scratch. She'll have spent sixteen years building her political career to the point of being president. Since Hilary and Bill are the same age, the Clintons have managed to fit two presidential timber political careers into a single working lifespan.

Don't you think that your thesis is a bit of a suspicious coincidence?

Re: boomers who think young folks are lazy

Last time I ment a university grad who was able to get a job straight out of school without having to work for free first, unless they had a family connection or something similar? Cannot recall. I think I've read some stories about a couple though.

These days, employers appear to expect to hire you on trial with the full complement of skills, and zero intention to train.

I personally suspect that the whole "Millenials are lazy" thing might be part of a scam to make more of them willing to take it up the butt and work for nothing or peanuts as part of some "paying your dues" kind of thing. So, for slightly related reasons, I started something called the GivingYourselfAway Internship Project, but things got pretty hectic for a while very shortly after, so efforts to self-organize youth to research job markets and flag illegal working conditions are clearly an area that could use a lot of work.

It used to be that a BA would get you a job of some sort. At least you had proven your ability to identify a task and complete it, albeit often not as a member of a team. For example, consider all those boomers who tell us how lazy we are, but then don't actually want to pay us to work for them. Yeah, that's really cool. Well, maybe in 20 years we will need death panels because they ran us into so much debt and then cut their own taxes while gutting various parts of the social system - only the wealthy will be able to afford health care. OK, that's a BS scare, since calls for dignity in dying days could hardly fall on deaf ears, but it would carry at least a bit of weight in a few circles.

Proposal: Hire yourself a reasonably promising grad who demonstrates real interest in your line of business, put three pathways in front of them, and tell them to KILL one of them over the next 12 months. This will involve identification of skills building objectives, among other things, in order to complete related tasks to a selected trajectory.

Thanks. Good points. For example, I had my MBA at age 23 in 1982. Can anybody anymore get an MBA that young?

The story is they want previous work experience. But is that partly because those people have money?

Sure, if you have a brand-new BA in business then many schools let you waive all the basic courses and get your MBA in only one additional year.

That being said, in the program I attended, about 90% of the students were mid-career professionals. The two most common types were mid managers and engineers.

Let's not forget you baby boomers are the ones causing health care to look expensive too. Us young people are glad you are doing well, but don't act like you aren't the reason for the Obamacare mess. Between your pharma tab and end of life care it's no wonder the country is broke. The GOP won't nominate anyone young because that person might actually make you guys use your summer home money to cover your second knee replacement.

2014, and Boomers still can't get enough of themselves.

Hmmm...if John Thacker's comment above about the increasing prevalence of professors working past age 70 is accurate, well, these are currently war and Depression babies that The Most Amazing Generation You Will Ever See has curiously been unable to unseat.

You only look good compared to the generations that come after, who benefited from your amazing progressive education ideas starting in the 1970s and now spend their days wondering how they'll pay for your generations's financial fecklessness and recklessness.

It will start to change around now though, as the Millenials (Boomers' kids) are a bigger cohort than even the Boomers...already happening at the pop culture level (because Millenials are now at the 'pop culture age' (14-34). So all the stuff that the Boomers affected as they aged into different life stages (changes in schooling, then pop culture, then jobs, then real estate, now aging/retirement) will be echoed by the new big cohort.

I was shocked the average age was ever that low, but I am somewhat young so my impressions are biased by the last decade of older Boomers dominating the field.

Being given responsibility is as much about appearance as competence. Simply being married helps a person's career because a married man comes off as more mature and responsible compared to a bachelor of the same age. In many ways young adults today *look* a lot younger than in prior generations. It's not uncommon to encounter 30 year olds who definitely look too young to buy beer. A big reason might be the decline of environmental stressors, particularly lower rates of smoking. The current round of youngish presidential hopefuls: Rubio, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, all look like little kids in their dad's suit when standing next to older politicians. Clinton, Kennedy and Theodore Roosevelt didn't give that impression. Neither did Obama in 2008, but he's a smoker, so I think that's why he looked (and sounded) older.

There's your answer, Jan. Start smoking.

Not unrelated: The average Ph.D. in Biology in the U.S. takes 7 years, and 30% of postdoctoral fellows do more than one postdoc. See http://www.ascb.org/ascbpost/index.php/compass-points/item/285-where-will-a-biology-phd-take-you for a very nice infographic with this and other numbers. Quickly looking, years-to-Ph.D. was 6.0 in 1981; I don't know the average postdoc length or number, but anecdotally, I'm sure it was far lower. (Physics is currently nearly identical in years to PhD, by the way; I don't know the postdoc numbers.)

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The high cost of tenure.

Agreed, but it's worse than that: The high cost of risk aversion! No risk in science, no return.

Are research grants now more about politics and than new ideas?

I personally see the tyranny of the old people all the time. They get way too much money from the NSF as well. The disrespect given to young people is incredible. You will not believe the number of times I have seen a senior grad student who has way more insight than their so called adviser have their idea shot down. I have seen post docs being treated like children by their PIs. So much of academia is so incredibly hierarchical. The bias is there when submitting a paper to a journal. Younger and less well established PIs are put through the wringer. And then there are old doods in their 60s and 70s who get to publish second rate stuff and drain all the limited funding for it.

It amazing that even though cognitive decline starts at 45 according to the latest evidence, academia pretends the opposite occurs - that you only start to get wise when you reach 45.

So instead of just complaining, I have some proposals:

1. Get rid of post docs - they only were introduced because of a lack of positions. They force up artificially the age at which you can properly do independent research. And they keep on getting longer. It used to be just one year. Now it's not unusual to have to do 3 years in between getting your PhD and getting a position.

2. Get rid of life tenure. Instead you get tenure for 20 years. Then it renews after that every 5 years. You have to justify why they should keep you with the understanding that after age 45 on average you will gradually have less and less to contribute. NB: it's a rebutable presumption, of course I know there are plenty of people in their 50s putting out amazing stuff.

3. Insist that the grant committee average age be below 40! And we need a committee made up of people in the 30s to review the grant committees. Someone needs to properly hold them to account and ask why they are being so conservative. And btw large committees imho make bad decision. They obsess about 'consensus'. Perhaps smaller committees would allow more debate and room for young persons' ideas.

4. Force PI's when they are up for tenure to retake their cumulative exams. So many of them have not kept up with their field or have had sufficiently deteriorated minds that they need to weeded out. And force them in front of committees where they must defend their continuing existence. And allow the grad students to interrogate them.

5. Get rid of the practice in some journals of knowing the name of the PI you are reviewing.

6. Instead of just looking at reviews of a PI by their graduate students and ignoring them, force them to have meaning. That is, if someone has long term bad reviews then they should be dismissed even if they have tenure.

7. Allow the pipsqeak 22 year old kid who has some incredible insight access to the system. Have some mechanism to recognize genius and let them leapfrog traditional gateways. This means getting rid of the notion of 'doing your time' for its own sake.

8. Pay people according to performance and title them accordingly. That means you might be full professor at age 35 and merely assistant professor at age 45. This means that seniority no longer means higher pay. It will allow a 27 year old to god forbid earn six figures in a university. I know some of you might think that such an event will create a black hole that will swallow the earth though. And when some man or women suddenly goes from earning $180K to $95K they might quit - which would be great because it would open up a spot for a new person.

9. Use 'big data' and evidence based methods to allocate funding. I suggested this to a very well established researcher in my field. He understood exactly what I meant and understood that it would result in better bang for the research buck (and agreed that it would) but was strongly against it because people like him would have lost out. [eg, throw bullshit flowery grant proposals that waste time and get down to the facts in a concise and relevant manner.]

10. Get rid of academic hazing and other right of passage that merely waste time. This means getting rid of requirements that lack scientific validity. For some people journal club is simply a waste of time - I am talking about doing it past some initial very helpful point. Some courses are just padding and could be got rid of. Get rid of extra degrees when they are unnecessary. So often extra Masters degrees are required because universities love to make huge amounts of money off them. Force departments to justify their policies. Eg it might be much more important to say have published 3 papers than write some bullshit dissertation for a PhD. Everyone knows that in the natural sciences all a PhD a dissertation is just your papers copied and pasted and edited with some bullshit story about how your research fits together in a narrative. And quite often that is a lie. If you cannot publish some worthy material then you don't get a PhD.

Instead PhD candidates should be drilled in writing papers, grant proposals and presentations. The other crap is a big waste of time.

A big part of that is making a PhD student stay on during a 6th year because they are so good that you can use their super cheap labor and get post doc quality stuff. All this does, is make everyone older. It needs to stop! The abuse of the labor market that occurs because grad students are so desperate is breath taking.

11. The bias towards 'famous' schools often means that young PIs and post docs in less fancy places don't get the chance they need. I have seen this from multiple perspectives and have luxuriated in the advantages of two fancy schools. But we need to get real. I have seen stuff that has come out from Harvard and it was such diabolical crap that I pity the sewer it might have come to rest in. But people see the H word and get memorized. And then there is some dood from Arizona State with some brilliant idea who is ignored. So I think the name of a school must be kept hidden much more during the grant making process.

BTW: about this - I am not naive. I have seen some of the dribble that comes through the lower end schools. And I do know that Stanford and Berkeley (in my anonymous field :) ) and truly awesome. So of course everything is a balance. So sometimes you might want to spend some time thinking about some idea that seems prima facia mad if it comes from certain institutions. Perhaps a good way to think about it is to measure the stogyness factor. Stanford is very innovative. Harvard is much more stodgy. And (I know it's a Liberal Arts college) but if you want to see extreme stodginess and narrow mindedness and repugnance to new ideas, you should visit Amherst College. MIT is pretty open in most areas. The more stodgy places tend to have older and more conservative faculty.

12. Force a small proportion of funding to be attached to projects that are not continuations of other projects. It's close to impossible to start on some completely new direction and everyone is very afraid of emphasizing how radically new their stuff is. Of course they pretend it is a little bit new or it wouldn't get funding either. Old people are the worst when it comes to refusing to consider new ideas. I was discussing a certain anonymous project with a certain anonymous PI back in the day and I suggested that since his empirical results kept up yielding failure, I suggested he build a sophisticated mathematical model to give a sense of how to proceed. He merely said that he doesn't do modeling because he doesn't know how to do it. Of course he didn't - he was some old dood with a full professorship who refused to learn new skills. Ever heard of getting off your lazy ass and reading some math books and working some problems? Not that hard especially given that post docs do it all the time. He refused to start a collaboration with the math department.

Well such people should be thrown out. Heck it seems that the older you get the less we require. When you are 22-28 you work like a dog and nothing is too much. Then later when you start your own lab you have a lot of work but the hours are less extreme. When you first get tenure you slack off a bit more. And then look at how hard 65 year old full professors work. The idea that they should god forbid actually take a class themselves to learn some new important skill is anathema. And of course they get to role in nice and late and take long vacations while taking home $125K - $200K. Meanwhile someone who actually works hard and produces much more useful stuff down the hall is someone skating by on $75K.

13. This problem is manifest in the fact that old people have way too much power. They grandfather themselves in when they change requirements for the next generation. They are way over represented in Congress. How many people are there in the Senate under age 50? I know someone running for Congress who is 35 about whom senior citizens tell me they would not consider - because he is too young. Think about all the people in their 70s on the supreme court. I once saw an article suggesting that worker productivity peaked in the late 20s and early 30s. Yet we pay those people way less than people in their 50s. It's a shame. This prejudice / discrimination is built into the constitution with regards to artificially high minimum ages for political office (maybe instead we should have a maximum age of 70). Well we have to start somewhere. Maybe someday we will see more pipsqueak as CEOs. Burger King has a CFO who is 28. Of course old people go on about 'experience'. They conveniently forget that the marginal benefit of experience rapidly falls and often becomes negative. They also forget about cognitive decline.

NB: I am suggesting policies that are based on evidence and (shock and horror) might upset a lot of rigid hierarchy. So these ideas are most certainly not PG rated for the narrow minded people out there (yes I see the irony in that analogy).

We could elect some share of representatives by age group. For example, 10 reps for each age group from 18-17, 28-37, etc., but weighted roughly to their share of the population.

In such an agist economy, this may prove highly relevant. This would also broaden the nature of representation in a manner that would be highly impervious to other changes of time, such as the average concentration of skin melanin in the population.

That was an idea of Hayek's: An upper house selected from 40 year olds to serve 15 years, with a juicy pension thereafter. When the cohorts filled an upper house, say the US Senate, their average age would be low compared to the average age of actual politicians nowadays!

Here's an example: http://nailheadtom.blogspot.com/2012/12/californias-most-prominent-politicians.html

Whoa! Way too radical, it'll never happen within the existing system. You need to construct a new system that will make the old system obsolete. Maybe Google would be interested in funding that.

And of course, Hayek knew that, too. Still, a nice dream?

"Now it’s not unusual to have to do 3 years in between getting your PhD and getting a position"

What field are you in? In Bio/neuroscience it's more like 5-6 years for a postdoc. I recently heard of someone applying for faculty jobs after 3 years and I was shocked...

Academia may need some Death Panels.

Let's settle for retirement panels! In any case, once it was the obverse: Only a panel could keep you from forced retirement. That's efficient in academia.

Forcing retirement on people who are obviously productive would be a blunt instrument and may backfire.

How bout just something like requiring a succession plan or mentoring on grants (already done to a small degree)

I learned more from my one 70+ committee member than all the others combined, for example.

Would the median be a better benchmark ?

Figure 1, my eyes hurt......average clumsy linear fit with no standard deviation.

Also, there's no mention on the article on NIH grants given to multiple recipients. If you read a little how to write a proposal to NIH one of the top recommendations is: "collaboration with a known laboratory or mentor" http://www.ninds.nih.gov/funding/write_grant_doc.htm#strategy Thus, you end of with a proposal with 10-12 recipients where only 4 or 5 are the Ph D students or post-docs doing the lab work. The rest are the lab/institute director and technical advisors. This way the grant age average skews to older age.

The article author jumps into conclusions before analyzing the grant system in the 2000s and the multiple recipient issue and says it's wrong. The institute/lab director name in a grant proposal may look dishonest, but the lab must somehow get funds. Lab expenses are much greater than a Ph D or post doc grant. Unless you get funding from Rockefeller Foundation or similar, getting funds is a full time job.

The discussion could be more interesting if there was data on the age composition and the responsibilities of each team member of multiple recipient grants. That way, the old people function in science would be more transparent. Even if their job is only getting funds for keeping the lab open a running.

What's the average age for the people deciding who gets the grants?

This is not a surprising statistic at all. the fact is that funding (the amount of available dollars) is EXTREMELY TIGHT, much more so than during the 80's and 90's. This results in fewer funded projects, but numbers are also tightened by the fact that grant budgets are substantially larger and thus eat up more of the pie. Today's applications need far more resources and preliminary data in hand when the application is submitted, and for both of the latter senior faculty have "more" than junior. So, on average, applications from senior investigators are far more competitive. The pile of dedicated dollars for junior investigators is still there, but the window for being eligible for it is short (about 7 years). In sum, the funding environment today is exceedingly (ridiculously) competitive, with the expected effect of more dollars going to senior investigators. Having said that, it is god awful for everyone.

We're nearing the grant singularity where the average age of a grant recipient will go up by at least one year every year!

To add to the tenure discussion, I think what tenure should mean, and this applies to all tenured positions including (especially) judges, is as follows:

1. A long fixed term employment contract, between twelve and tweny-four years, with it being very difficult though not impossible for the contract to be voided.

2. Guaranteed lifetime pension and/ or perks such as free use of the school facilities, that are even harder to take away than the fixed term employment, though not worth as much as a salary.

3. In return, the person enjoying #2 remains "on call" for consultation or projects as needed, and will have restrictions as to what other employment they can take (more relevant to judges than for academics).

Its still a pretty good deal, but tenure should not mean holding down positions with actual responsibility during one's declining years, preventing someone closer to their peak mental condition being appointed to that position.

I'd say this is 70% globalisation and 30% a problem with tenure. Either way, it's a problem.

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