Graying NIH - NEWSFOCUS The Graying of NIH Research Many...

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7 NOVEMBER 2008 VOL 322 SCIENCE 848 CREDITS (LEFT TO RIGHT): JASON KOSKI/CORNELL UNIVERSITY; KALMON ZABARSKY/BOSTON UNIVERSITY; UT SOUTHWESTERN MEDICAL CENTER NEWS FOCUS Roger Unger found himself drawn to research as a young internal medicine resident some- time around 1950, when he was treating dia- betes patients in New York City. He had a con- troversial idea—that glucagon, a biomolecule then thought to be a contaminant in insulin made from ground-up beef and pork pan- creases, might actually be a key hormone affecting blood sugar. Unger and colleagues in Texas had no direct evidence for this, but “we had the tools to answer the question, and we needed some money,” Unger says. So at age 32, Unger applied for and won a research grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). It didn’t seem hard, “because I didn’t know what I was doing back then,” says Unger, now at the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Several years later, Unger’s group published a landmark paper pin- ning down glucagon’s role as a counter to insulin in regulating blood glucose levels: Glucagon tells cells to make more glucose, whereas insulin brings excess amounts down. Today, at 84, Unger still runs a lab that enjoys NIH support. Now he’s motivated by a new public health problem—the “meltdown” in Americans’health due to rising rates of obe- sity, he says. He’s deep into exploring a concept his lab put forward: that a surfeit of lipids in obese people contributes to diabetes and heart disease. “I always decided I would retire when I ran out of ideas. But I didn’t. The ideas got more exciting,” says Unger. That researchers such as Unger are still going strong in their 70s and 80s—and pulling down grants—would have been unheard of 3 decades ago. Because the biomedical enter- prise was young and most universities had mandatory faculty retirement until 1994, there were few NIH-funded principal investigators older than 70 in 1980. But in 2007, there were at least 400 of them, according to NIH data. Indeed, NIH projections indicate that grantees over 68 could outnumber scientists under 38 by 2020 (see graph). The average age for obtaining a first NIH research grant is now 42. These data worry some research leaders, who have called on the community to reverse the trend. They have also contributed to a sense of crisis at NIH, which is taking steps to bolster the number of new investigators and slow the rising age of the average NIH-funded scien- tist, now 51 (see p. 834). NIH officials say they do not mean to dis- courage very senior investigators from contin- uing in research. “It’s not young against old,” says NIH Director Elias Zerhouni. The number of investigators over 70 among those funded by NIH is a tiny fraction of the total, and some of them are incredibly productive into their later years—for example, Nobel laureates Eric Kandel and Paul Greengard are both around 80. Furthermore, peer review is supposed to
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This note was uploaded on 01/15/2012 for the course BSC 3402 taught by Professor Brockmann,h during the Fall '08 term at University of Florida.

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Graying NIH - NEWSFOCUS The Graying of NIH Research Many...

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