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SCHIZOPHRENIA AND RELATED DISORDERS: Edited by Lynn E. DeLisi and Iris E.C. Sommer


Aging researchers

DeLisi, Lynn E.

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Current Opinion in Psychiatry: May 2019 - Volume 32 - Issue 3 - p 145-146
doi: 10.1097/YCO.0000000000000493
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This is an issue of Current Opinion in Psychiatry on timely topics in schizophrenia research over the past year. Yet one topic that is rarely written about is what happens to the researchers, themselves. There is clearly a cycle of life-long learning and productivity, from the years of being a young trainee with mentors, to years of persistence in grant writing and climbing the ‘academic ladder’, to being excited on receipt of one's first independent grant award, and then somewhere in the course of one's career – a peak in productivity around the ages of 50–55 with job opportunities rising. What happens afterward to each researcher varies, but inevitably the researcher no longer has the ‘edge’ to be given special consideration as a ‘young investigator that needs to be given a chance’ and is soon labelled as the ‘seasoned investigator’ who needs to be moving aside to give younger people the career opportunities that they once had. A focus and need to encourage the younger generation of researchers is clear [1], but what about the older researchers? What happens to them while promoting those junior to them? There are widespread stereotypes about those who have aged that are difficult for the individual to override [2]. Even in countries such as the United States where age discrimination is illegal, it is wide-spread.

Yet, by the time one has reached the age of 60 and above, a considerable amount of wisdom has been gained in the art of writing grants, and pursuing hypotheses that may or may not have been shown to be true. The 60+ year old has led large laboratory or research groups and mentored many trainees to follow in his/her foot-steps. He/she has dealt with authorship controversies, data interpretation disagreements and even some ethical problems that sometimes occur among ambitious research teams who compete and want to get to the answers first. These aging researchers deal with constant obligations to perform peer reviews of publications, speak at meetings and university departments and get caught accumulating air miles that do not lead to progress in grant proposals and detract from pursuing the science. They become presidents of organizations and are asked to chair committees and compete to chair their departments. Their hypotheses continue to be investigated by others while they are doing these extra activities, but then, there is a moment that they think about what should they be doing for the rest of their careers. Although these distractions may be serving a subtle purpose and a way to move on and let the new generation take the lead, many investigators, unlike the general public, continue to work even into their 80's making progress in scientific pursuits. In many countries, retirement is no longer mandatory at age 65 or even above. However, grant submissions are no longer realistic goals, as the statistics weigh heavily against them. In 2013, NIH funded a very small percentage of researchers aged 70 and over. Funding of the traditional R01 grant fell rapidly for investigators aged 60–75 with essentially none being awarded to anyone age 80, despite some investigators still working fulltime at that age [3]. The format for submission of grant proposals keeps changing and the technology unattainable by those who are aging. The review committees mostly consist of younger researchers who do not appreciate the abilities of the older researcher and see them only as ‘less productive’ based on the number of publications they failed to have produced in recent years, not appreciating that the older research only sees the need to publish important things and this does not mean they are less productive. An interesting concept for transitioning the older researcher, making use of his/her expertise and yet preserving the focus on the younger new generation of scientists, was proposed not long ago at NIH in the United States. This idea put forth to the public for debate was for a grant mechanism that would help older researchers transfer their laboratory directorships to younger investigators and yet have their role as mentors amplified – that is the proposed National Institutes of Health (NIH) Emeritus Grant Initiative [4]. This is something that has also long been noted and debated in the United Kingdom as well where the older professors and academics appear as a separate entity from the overall aging population [5]. This was met with a lot of criticism and thus to my knowledge never implemented, likely because it was thought that these grants would ultimately take limited funds away from the junior investigators [4].

Nevertheless, at some point, researchers who have run laboratories and led grants for many years want to find the optimal time to put down those responsibilities and do other things that still make use of their knowledge. Too often they either do not know how to do that or do not know what else to do, and are last remembered for the irritable questions they may raise at conferences or their public announcements that the ‘wheel is being reinvented’, as their work 50 years earlier, no longer remembered by a new generation of researchers, showed the finding talked about first. Unfortunately, they are then only seen through the eyes of the younger researcher as curious elders who are more of an annoyance than a mentor.

In summary, ‘older and wiser’ has always been the adage. But how can the senior researcher be kept engaged in activities he/she feels are meaningful? It is unclear how he/she can still remain useful. Perhaps grant review and various selection and nominating committees should be composed of the older researchers. Keynote and plenary speakers for conferences could be drawn from older colleagues. Advisory Boards, journal editors and department heads could also be drawn from the older researchers who have the knowledge and expertise to spread to a new generation of scientists. In addition, those energetic elderly who are still capable of putting together grant applications, should not be thought of as ‘seasoned’, but money should be set aside specifically to support the funding of the implementation of their good creative ideas, without drawing from the funds for those more junior. Grant reviews might be more objective if the applicant's name and age were not known by the reviewer. Then the merit of the grant can be reviewed without taking age of investigator into account. However, one idea proposed is to create a formal funding mechanism that encourages older scientists to devote substantial time toward developing younger investigators’ careers. Grants that provide mentoring and encourage collaborations among young investigators could be obtained by the senior investigator. This would preserve the contributions from senior scientists and yet develop the next generation. Organizing and putting together this issue of Current Opinions each year has also been an honor that someone who has a perspective on the years of research that previously transpired can hopefully accomplish successfully regardless of age.



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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


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