Capturing Rising Stars in PD Science: Challenges & Solutions

erobin.jpgHow do we capture rising stars in science and encourage them to focus their attention on Parkinson’s? This is a question that PDF — in its quest to help solve, treat and end PD — has been evaluating since its creation 60 years ago.

In fact, PDF’s focus on catching rising stars in PD is the reason why we have prioritized funding for the training of early-career neurologists — more than 100 of them over the years — in PD research and care. It is also the reason we have supported the research of more than 250 early-career basic scientists over the same period.

Recently, PDF took a new look at the life-cycle of a Parkinson’s scientist. At once, we saw the need to capture rising stars before they drift from the field for lack of career options.

And we realized that we must do more.

The facts are startling. We reviewed data that traced careers of scientists from the time they enter graduate school — whether for medicine or for basic science — to the time they receive their first research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). We found that:

  • Between 1980 and today, the average age at which scientists received their first NIH grants went up nearly 10 years — from the mid-30s to the mid-40s.
  • Not only that, but among all scientists who receive major NIH support, the percentage who are “young” (35 years and under) at the time of their first grant dropped from 12 percent in 1980 to almost zero today.

Such changes have redefined the definition of an “early career” scientist. They have also meant a sharp increase in the burden on the scientists themselves, who want to stay in the field of PD but simply cannot afford to wait out the time that may never come. It is a “valley of death,” a time during which scientists decide whether to stay in research or to take an alternative path. The strain is such that we are losing some of the brightest minds from the fight against Parkinson’s disease.

This is the backdrop to PDF’s increased commitment of funds to support young scientists through the “valley of death” period (see our latest grants here). If we are to have a chance of keeping the people we need to lead Parkinson’s research in the next generation, we can do no less.

Are you a scientist working in Parkinson’s disease struggling with funding? Weigh in with your thoughts below.

This post first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of the PDF Newsletter, News & Review.


2 thoughts on “Capturing Rising Stars in PD Science: Challenges & Solutions

  1. John Hamilton

    Robin’s argument is compelling. The funding problem for young scientists is huge in almost all disciplines and fields of research, medical and otherwise. But this is also an opportunity for PDF. It gives us the opportunity to attract researchers (who may be about to abandon other fields of medical researc) to work on Parkinson’s if funding for. Parkinson’s research is available.

    I am a Parkinson’s patient retired from a career of scientific research.

  2. Alan S Levine, Ph.D.

    Robin Elliott is right on target! I spent 25 years at the NIH in the capacity of Program Director. I developed programs and funded research grants in the areas I was responsible for nurturing. Since leaving the NIH I have continued to follow the funding situation and I can tell you that it has, and will continue to be, increasingly more difficult to obtain an NIH grant. Less than 1 in 5 grant applications get funded. This means that even the most proven and productive investigators have a difficult time securing and maintaining an NIH grant.

    As difficult as it is for the seasoned investigator, the picture is even more bleak for the young scientist. In their formative years, they are supported by funding from their mentor’s NIH grant. Sooner or later they have to go out on their own. Funding from the PDF is almost a necessity to furthering the career of a young scientist or clinical investigator who is interested in solving the many unanswered questions in Parkinson’s research. This PDF support will enable them to “make their mark” in the field and put them in a more competitive position to compete against the more established investigators in the NIH grant arena. Without receiving this independent research support, younger scientists will leave research for a more stable career.

    The PDF has its priorities right on target. Funding for new investigators is absolutely essential for continued progress in eliminating the suffering from this relentless disease.


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