The Age of Reason

Inevitably, it happens to us all. Some of us succumb quietly, with crow’s feet pulling on the corners of their eyes and ‘love handles’ attaching to our midsections. Others put up a valiant battle, sweating in the gym and avoiding the typical ‘western diet’. But in the end, with New Year’s around the bend, we are all a year older—and wiser?

For scientists, and especially biologists, this should not be a cause for melancholy—after all, such is the cycle of life. But I think there is indeed ample cause for reflecting on the ‘aging scientist’.

The first reason is that scientists are finding themselves at increasingly advanced ages as they take steps towards their first independent positions. I myself accepted a tenure track position at the ripe old age of 38.

After 3 years of military service, I did an undergraduate degree in 3 years, a research-based Master’s degree (another 2 years), a Ph.D. in 5 years and 4.5 years as a postdoctoral fellow. True, I took a year off somewhere in between to travel and see the world. But aside from the mandatory military service and the year off, I didn’t ‘dawdle’ too long on the track. And yet—as many postdocs joke these days, if I had done second and third postdoc stints, I could have probably retired without ever having had to obtain a permanent position.

I don’t want to rehash the issues that Jenny so aptly described regarding age-bias (official and ‘veiled’) in her recent blog “In which I question my own sell-by date”—I too have suffered from some of this bias and think it is outrageous. Instead, I would rather focus on what happens to established scientists as they get older—and what options there are for dignified aging as a scientist.

Over the past 20 years, I have observed a lot of scientists reaching their sixties, seventies and eighties. Each and every one seems to have handled his/her own situation in an entirely different fashion.

I have seen some who have managed to maintain highly successful laboratories and continue to be active in science, writing grants, papers, and mentoring students. The cycle, they say, keeps them feeling young. I don’t disagree. But for each of these scientists, there are another ten whose situation radically differs.

Many scientists reach an age where they can no longer keep up—scientifically, with the new techniques and findings, with the technology, and with the grant funding. Some try hanging on for dear life, with a few dollars here and a few morsels there, anything to keep going. In many cases, laboratory space is a limiting issue, rationed out to researchers according to their level of funding. Once this has dried up, aging researchers may sometimes find themselves without laboratory space, relegated to an office and involved exclusively in teaching. Some thrive, enjoy the teaching and remain positive and active. Others become disenchanted, melancholic and disengage.

Some researchers prepare for these stages in a very calculated manner; they plan ahead to that very last grant and retire as champions, who have never suffered defeat or gone unsuccessful. Other researchers drift or push their way into administrative positions, and are no longer required to run a lab and obtain funding to cover part (or all) of their salaries.

So, you might ask—what is the purpose of this commentary? I do not have an answer on the best track to take—and I welcome comments from scientists of all ages—I can barely envision my next grant submission. However, as time flows on, we would best be prepared to think ahead about our own careers and how we might like to envision our own progression along the career path in years from now. In doing so, we might also discover some empathy and compassion for those scientists who were busy at the bench long before us.

Paper mache sculpture by Dr. Naava Naslavsky, cell biologist and artist extraordinaire

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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9 Responses to The Age of Reason

  1. I doubt whether it’s possible to generalise. I had a late start too, but I was very lucky to live in a time when responsive mode grants were the norm. I had a series of 5 year programme grants as PI from the MRC up to the age of 68, in 2004. Thanks to wonderful folks in the lab who carried on the same sort of work I was able to carry on as co-applicant on another programme grant from 2004 -2009. Some of the best papers that I’ve ever had the good fortune to be associated with came out in 2004 and 2008 my first ever article (as opposed to letter) came out in Nature in 2008, when I was 72 (Lape, Colquhoun & Sivilotti). I don’t think one has to stop being involved in science because one reaches some arbitrary age.

    It’s true that it has been relatively easy for me to keep going because of my interest in the mathematics of single ion channels, and because I wrote most of the analysis programs. I don’t see much competition in that area from younger scientists. many of whom seem to think one can push buttons on commercial programs without having to understand what they do.

    It’s only in the last 2 or 3 years that I’ve come to wonder where science is heading. Responsive mode grants have almost vanished, and to survive it now seems to be necessary to exaggerate what you can achieve to the point of dishonesty in the hope of getting funds from some earmarked programme dreamt up by ex-scientists in Research Councils. The conditions are now such that it is almost impossible to do the sort of fundamental work that I have always enjoyed. The pressure to publish, imposed by dimwitted administrators, is threatening the honesty of the whole enterprise,

    Luckily for me, as my direct involvement in science has begun to wind down, I found myself in the age of the blog. And the one great advantage of being 74 is that you can say what you like about university presidents and senior administrators. There isn’t much they can do about it. At the same time ‘public engagement’ became a buzzword (though only too often that means no more than semi-honest PR for your institution).

    So I have a recommendation for scientists who wish to grow old disgracefully. Start your own blog and use it to tell the truth as you see it in the hope that you’ll be able to help younger colleagues who are too frightened of retribution to defend themselves.

  2. There is another way of considering what happens to the scientist of mature years. Far from the position of clinging on for dear life to lab space, some of us take the view that we can offer something different to science; even though we don’t actually want to give up the research itself this may de facto be the outcome. In my case, this means I sit on/chair lots of committees, within the university and outside, which I hope facilitate the ability to do science of the next generation. Some of my younger colleagues have challenged me (and others I know who have followed the same path) about doing less science, and my answer is it is the young who are creative and who should in the main be left to get on with it. I have had colleagues who have chosen to go and work in research councils, become pro-vice chancellors/deans/heads of departments etc so that the bright minds they appoint can flourish. We can still mentor and advise, we can still have a handful of students, but it is a different sort of contribution we make. I would like to believe it was worthwhile. And I would like to believe it was appreciated, and that experience has some value in these roles!

  3. Jenny says:

    David, do you think there is more to be done about fixing our broken profession than just blogging? Not to undermine the power of the written word, but it strikes me that the people who care about what’s happening could probably do more, if only we could get more organized.

  4. stephenemoss says:

    With staff cuts looming across the UK HE sector, universities are already offering their more ‘mature’ scientific staff early retirement packages. For an old professorial friend a few years my senior, this was not the end of the road, but an opportunity to get back to the lab. The retirement package that he took was relatively generous, and within weeks he had been re-recruited by another of my colleagues (somewhat my junior) as a technician. The salary is pocket money compared to his previous salary, but he’s back in the lab doing what he enjoys and is good at. His new lab head was a little unsure about having a professorial technician, but early signs are that the arrangement is working extremely well for both.

  5. Jenny says:

    Wow, that’s an amazing story, Stephen! Do you know how long the contract is for? The longest I’ve seen for advertised technician posts in my field is 5 years, with 2-3 seeming to be the average. But I guess when you’re near actual retirement age and have had a payout, you don’t actually need longer-term security.

    • stephenemoss says:

      It’s only a three year contract, but as you say, when you’re close to retirement age you’re not too concerned as to what happens next. This example is of little help or relevance to younger scientists, but seemed pertinent to the original post.

  6. You’re not talking about another Steve of our mutual acquaintance, are you, Stephen?

    Professor to technician is a bit unusual… though I know that David Colquhoun is employed on the lab programme grant as a postdoc. Actually I sometimes think he does that mainly to get the ridiculous PR bulletins the UCL bosses send out to the research contract staff.

    My father retired from the Open University at age 65 and then went on working as a part-time (paid!) “Senior Research Fellow” at Cardiff into his mid-70s. I can also think of a fair few senior academics who have taken the pay-off and then taken part-time University teaching posts in sunnier climes – e.g. I know one recent Leeds retiree who is now teaching physiology in Trinidad. Though not all chose to keep doing science or academia – another ex-academic ion channel person I know is now working as a fishing guide.

    Speaking for myself, the problem with the kind of path Athene outlines is that it relies upon the University thinking you are worth keeping in a job. It may be OK at Professorial levels, but lower down the ladder it is a bit tenuous.

    I guess I would call my current activity “profile” something like 60% teaching and associated admin, 30% various “external affairs” things, and a (generous) 10% research. But the way many Universities would look at this, the research and the external stuff earn no grant money or other income and hence in the current economic climate they do not exist. So from their perspective I may be a luxury item that does not pay its way. In the UK, of course, we have academic jobs on a permanent contract but we do not quite have US style tenure. So how secure is my job? The answer, I think, is “not very”. And at just shy of fifty and with young kids I cannot afford to retire any time soon.

  7. Jenny says

    “David, do you think there is more to be done about fixing our broken profession than just blogging?”

    Blogging is just one component of lobbying. I try to use all the methods that I can, Articles and letters in the papers when they’ll take them, and talking to anyone who’ll listen.

    The problem is that, although most academics seem to agree more-or-less with me in private, there are very few who are willing to put their head above the parapet. That’s partly a matter of time but much more a fear that rocking the boat will do them harm. The fear of rocking the boat can persist to a surprisingly high age too. That allows those in power to write-off people like me as isolated trouble makers. I don’t mind being a troublemaker but I’d often prefer to feel a bit less isolated. In my more desperate moments I sometimes think that academics deserve what they get. They sometimes resemble so many lemming rushing to the edge of the cliff.

    One good thing about blogging is that it makes it far easier than it used to be to find where your allies are, and to organise pressure, as you found to such amazingly good success in your Science Is Vital campaign. Your own campaign shows that success is possible sometimes. All we can do is keep going,

    My main priority now is to try to make sure that when people get fired it isn’t the academics who do the real work of the place, but the ever-expanding number of non-academics that have accreted around the academic enterprise, and who usually hinder rather than help our work,

    I had to laugh when Austin said “Actually I sometimes think he does that mainly to get the ridiculous PR bulletins the UCL bosses send out to the research contract staff”. There is some truth in that. There is nothing like an email from a “change manager” to keep your blood boling.

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