Message From the President: What's Next for Senior Scientists
In my last message, I addressed some of the challenges facing young scientists navigating in the changing landscape of opportunities in neuroscience. Just as important, and equally as challenging, are the difficulties of senior scientists approaching retirement yet seeking to stay involved in science in some way.
Some of my colleagues dream of the trips they’ve always wanted to take or the rounds of golf they look forward to playing. Others want to continue in the lab but make more time to visit family or give back to the community. And those investigators over age 70 who are still active in the lab move along at top speed. But many senior scientists are unsure of their options for remaining engaged or how they’ll be received when seeking to continue their decades-long activities.
Based on conversations with colleagues in the U.S. and other countries, I have gathered some ideas for ways that senior scientists can stay engaged and tips for campaigning at their universities and funding agencies to do so.
Roles for Institutions
Universities and scientific foundations should consider that they can benefit greatly from the experience senior scientists bring. By providing support and cultivating alternative roles, institutions can encourage these scientists to stay involved while also making use of their valuable scientific and institutional knowledge.
How can this be done? At the Charles A. Dana Research Institute for Scientists Emeriti (RISE) at Drew University in New Jersey, retired industrial scientists supervise undergraduate student research and in return the school provides them with offices, research space, and equipment. These senior scientists spend at least half of their time doing research of their choosing that also engages the students. The University of Cambridge, in certain circumstances, can award a retired academic with a voluntary research agreement, which allows that person to act as the principal investigator under a grant without remuneration.
The Hertie Foundation in Germany offers an endowed professorship for neuroscientists over age 60 who want to dedicate their time to research, and allows them to pursue ideas that could not garner funding through normal routes. Additional awards and grants such as these would benefit both researchers and the field.
Stay Active in Academia
How can individuals plan for staying in the game without funding? The following are just a few suggestions of ways to continue contributing in the academic realm. You can:
Join the lab of a more junior PI or even a peer: Serve as an “elder” in the lab and carry out actual experiments at the bench. Arrange for an office or desk in the midst of the lab, not shuttered away at a distance.
Serve as a mentor to students, trainees, or postdocs: You can assume this role formally (within a university program) or in an unofficial capacity, advising young neuroscientists on career options both inside and outside of academia.
Teach a seminar on your favorite topic: If you are passionate about a specific area, pass on your excitement to students. Your experience and knowledge allows you to compare current and historical approaches to the topic and foster discussion surrounding long-standing questions.
Travel to a different domestic or foreign lab: Mentor students in places lacking the professional skills training that many research universities offer, or edit manuscripts in English for those trainees and PIs for whom English is not their first language.
Volunteer in the Community
For senior scientists who wish to move away from lab research, the world of volunteerism is a felicitous way to keep connected to the scientific community.
Volunteer for a community or science organization: Give back to your community and the neuroscience field by becoming a volunteer leader. Serve on committees or boards, or coordinate programs.
Educate young students: Participate in programs that teach young children or students about science. For instance, the RE-SEED (Retirees Enhancing Science Education through Experiments and Demonstrations) program at Northeastern University trains retired scientists to assist K-12 teachers in the classroom with the aim of improving student outcomes in STEM fields.
Communicate the Importance of Science
Effectively communicating to the public and policymakers about science and its important role in society is a constant challenge for the field, and senior scientists can help meet this challenge.
Advocate for research funding: Head to Capitol Hill or your local legislature to share your passion for science and convey the importance of funding research. Join SfN’s Advocacy Network to stay informed and take action on the many issues that affect neuroscience research. Or work with an advocacy group such as Research!America to spread the word.
Become a resource: Educators, students, and the public need your expertise. SfN can connect you with groups that need your help through its Find a Neuroscientist program. By signing up, your contact information will be entered in a database of members interested in education outreach and you could be contacted to visit a class or speak at an event.
Write or edit articles for science publications or the popular press: If you enjoy reading and writing about science, consider becoming a writer or editor. You could write op-ed pieces on scientific topics of concern to you.
The field and the public can learn so much from senior scientists, who could play a vastly larger role than they realize in shaping the future of the field. By staying involved and pursuing opportunities to mentor and volunteer, senior scientists will become more highly valued.
If you are nearing retirement age and are preparing to step down but would like to stay involved, I encourage you to initiate conversations with your peers, deans, provosts, and presidents about the roles that you can play as a senior scientist. Approach foundations or even NIH to establish senior fellowships for the activities I discuss above. Check out the blog The Singular Scientist, which has recent posts aimed at helping senior scientists grappling with questions about retirement.
When I have discussed these ideas, they have been met with open arms by scientists of all ages, but now we need to work together for change — for the benefit of senior scientists, the next generation of scientists, and the public.