It is often hard to decide when one should retire from their profession, especially when their profession is their passion and there is a need for younger heirs professionally. According to Eric Orwoll, MD, Oregon Health and Science University, a new strategic plan needs to be enacted to take full advantage of the capabilities of older scientists while making sure young talent receives proper mentoring.

There is no mandatory retirement age for scientists in the US. Although many academic choose to retire to pursue other opportunities, others work till the end of their lives. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 31.9% of researchers aged 65-74 will still be working by 2022.

The absence of compulsory retirement like in Europe and Japan can also open doors for older scientists to other professions such as teaching, mentoring, co-investigating, or entrepreneurship. However many scientists continue to be principal investigators even after their retirement ages. Surprisingly, older scientists can do better work with many senior researchers holding extremely important positions in the American scientific community. For instance, researcher Roger Unger, currently in his 80s, runs the laboratory at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

“I always decided I would retire when I ran out of ideas. But I didn’t. The ideas got more exciting,” said Unger.

Furthermore the number of research grants given to older scientists by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has increased over the last 70 years. However these numbers also pose a problem to the future of the scientific community since many experts believe the increasing number of researchers aged 80 and over is discouraging younger scientists. Some officials have even called for a fixed fund granted to researchers over a certain age, while others are asking for the enforcement of retirement ages. NIH recently planned to design a grant mechanism which would support senior researchers. Although the plan was supported by Ronald Daniels, President, Johns Hopkins University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the proposition still met plenty of opposition.

Bearing in mind that senior researchers have an edge over their younger counterparts in terms of experience and knowledge, older scientists also have to compete for funding and institutional resources. Therefore a merit system would be the right solution as it would not render the experience of senior scientists useless  since research projects of older scientists can be quite impressive and hold real value for the community.

However at the same time, the scientific community needs to ensure there are ample opportunities for young investigators because if emerging scientific talent is not honored, long-term research efforts would suffer consequently. But the reality of the situation is there are not enough funds available for both old and young research groups.

One possible solution is to formulate a funding mechanism which can encourage senior scientists to mentor younger talent — after a certain age (65 or 70), scientists should focus on mentoring or encouraging collaboration with younger researchers. If such a collaborative model is designed and adopted, older scientists would be able to continue their research work while ensuring the younger generation has their chance to prove themselves in the scientific community.

“NIH could provide clear incentives for senior scientists to transition to a career stage focused on fostering the development of young investigators,” said Orwoll.

Funding capable and enthusiastic mentors is very important. Likewise finding younger scientists with appropriate enthusiasm is also essential. Currently, panels tasked with allocating grants do not have the necessary screening tools required to determine if a younger or older scientist is up to par which is a tragedy since such tools can only be made with the help of shared views from both age groups, young and old.

Orwell concluded, “We could accomplish all these aims by developing strategic approaches focused on collaboration and mentoring.”