Young Science USA

09/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • James M. Gentile Dean for the Natural & Applied Sciences, Hope College, Holland, MI

A reform movement that arose in 19th-century England provides a metaphor for what is now needed by our institutions of 21st-century American science. In 1840s England, an initially somewhat inchoate longing for national betterment arose among the sons of aristocrats attending Eton and Cambridge. Eventually known as the Young England Movement, its proponents, although essentially conservative, called for reform of the nation's sturdy institutions of feudalism in light of Victorian-era advancements.

What's needed today might be called the Young Science USA movement. Its proponents would maintain that America must reform how our government funds scientific research, specifically with an eye to encouraging and supporting our early career researchers in academia.

Young scientists are the people to whom we look for the sometimes startling paradigm shifts and scientific breakthroughs essential to national security and prosperity. Albert Einstein, the 20th-century's poster boy for scientific insight, was only 26, for example, during his annus mirabilis, the "year of wonders" during which he came out with his Theory of General Relativity and several other important papers. It's a fact -- in most fields of human endeavor, well-educated, bright, young people simply have the most innovative ideas.

But for too many years now we have been neglecting this key demographic.

Astonishingly, the National Institute of Health (NIH), a major funding source for critically important biomedical research, define an early career, or young, scientist as "age 42 and below."

The average age of a researcher winning a first NIH grant in 1970 was 35.2 years, while it currently hovers around 42.9, with the average age of all NIH grant recipients now at 51.7 years, versus 40.9 in 1970. The chance of a young researcher today being successful in NIH grant competitions is a remarkably low 4 percent.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that in physics in recent years, almost 70 percent of new Ph.D.s are shunted off into temporary (and low-paying) postdoctoral jobs, compared to 43 percent in 2000. This trend may be helpful to older established researchers in need of lab help, and to universities looking for a cheap source of instructors, but it does little to liberate our finest, most creative, young minds to pursue fresh theories and explore new insights.

The Young Englanders passed the Climbing Boys Act -- legislation that attempted to temper life's harshness for the nation's chimney sweeps; Young Science USA should be working to improve the plight of our nation's woefully underpaid, often intensely overworked, postdoctoral researchers, many of whom become discouraged and leave the sciences.

Fortunately, Young Science USA may have its own political champion -- much as the Young England Movement relied on Benjamin Disraeli, twice Prime Minister, for leadership. His name is Barack Obama, and he made a point of mentioning the plight of early career researchers during his presidential campaign. In the past month, under the leadership of the U.S. Secretary of Energy, Dr. Steven Chu, the Department of Energy designated $85 million in stimulus funds as grants to be awarded to 50 young scientists, defined as those within 10 years of having earned their Ph.D.s.

This is great news, and a good start -- but $85 million, out of a total DOE budget of $27 billion, amounts to little more than the expression of good intentions. Much more must be done.

At stake is America's national security and economic competitiveness in an era when India, China and the rising Asian tigers are making great strides to improve their science and technology sectors. As a result, observers predict, the United States will lose the supremacy in science and technology that it has enjoyed for the past half-century. That's not necessarily bad news -- a better-educated, more advanced Third World is important for humankind. But U.S. science is now in danger of falling behind these rising powers, and that will mean that we could slip economically as well.

The last 60 years have established beyond all doubt that scientific and technological prowess is essential to a modern nation. We have a sacred duty to future generations of Americans to maintain the most advanced scientific programs imaginable. And meeting this responsibility is more complicated than ever: today's complex advanced science frequently requires teams of researchers to cross the boundaries of physics, chemistry, biology and other disciplines to solve problems that would have seemed wildly impossible only decades ago.

At Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the nearly 100-year-old private foundation that I head, we take this daunting challenge seriously.

Next year we will fund a new program called Scialog. Like the Department of Energy program previously discussed, Scialog will support young researchers to tackle complex science questions that address the broad context of global climate change. We will fund and bring together academic researchers who have just received tenure -- the most creative cohort in American science -- and assist them in forming teams to find new ways to increase the efficiency of processes to convert sunshine directly into electricity.

If they succeed, we have a chance at a new age; if they fail, we will still have learned a great deal of new science that will take us in unexpected directions. A prime ingredient of advanced scientific research is the willingness to take a chance on a new and interesting idea -- something that large, federal, funding agencies admit they haven't been good at in the recent past. Under President Obama, they appear to be taking modest strides at taking such risks.

The Young England movement eventually petered out; Young Science USA must never be allowed to do so. If the future of our nation is not continually renewed by young Americans well supported in their advanced scientific research, we likely will have a very dim future indeed.

James M. Gentile is President & CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America's first foundation dedicated solely to science, founded in 1912.