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6 The Postdoc and the Funding Organization T he quality of the postdoctoral experience is influenced in important ways by granting agencies and mechanisms of financial support for scientific and engineering research. By tradition, research in the US has dual objectives: 1) the discovery and application of new knowledge, and 2) the education of the scientists and engineers who perform research. Funding organizations can help ensure that the second goal is not neglected with regard to postdocs. The educational aspect of research is highly visible in the university, and it should also characterize federal and industrial laboratories where scientists-in- training learn in the company of experienced researchers. Funding organizations can play an important role in promoting the educational component of research by encouraging career development and guidance, as well as more focused sci- entific and technical training. LEVELS OF FUNDING A source of dissatisfaction among many postdocs, especially those in the life sciences who work at universities, is the relatively low pay. The federal agencies that support research, especially the NIH and NSF, have a dominant position in establishing compensation levels. In the life sciences, the NIH sup- ports about 7,000 postdocs via NRSA traineeships, about 6,500 through research grants, and 2,800 through fellowships for trainees at its main campus in Bethesda, Maryland. Even after a recent increase of 25 percent in the NRSA stipend level, the starting level is only $26,256 per year. Although the NIH did not intend that this level serve as a national benchmark for setting postdoc salaries, it is widely 88
THE POSTDOC AND THE FUNDING ORGANIZATION 89 interpreted as such by PIs who pay postdocs from their research grants. They or the institution may or may not supplement the âNIH scaleâ to raise the pay levels of postdocs. The NIH defines awards to NRSA recipients not as salaries but as stipends for those who are receiving training. In this sense, a stipend is intended as a mechanism for sharing costs among the funder, the host institution, and the trainee (in the form of research performed and income foregone). The mecha- nismâs underlying assumption is that the trainee receive, in addition to the sti- pend, both scientific instruction and career guidance that can lead to improved abilities and career satisfaction. The postdoctoral experience succeeds when this assumption is shared by all parties and when oversight and guidance are adequate. The experience does not succeed when the educational component is weak and when the stipend becomes, by default, the only compensation for a postdocâs contributions to the program. The NIH, NSF, and other funding organizations do not use a particular benchmark to establish stipend levels. According to NIH officials, the recent increase in stipends resulted from a substantial rise in agency funding and a general feeling that stipends were too low (before October 1998, postdoc sti- pends began at $19,000 annually). COSEPUP concluded during its investigation that present compensation levels are probably still too low for the optimal functioning of the research enterprise. Although stipends should not be the primary incentive for accepting a postdoc appointment, neither should they be a large disincentive; without ade- quate pay, it is reasonable to conclude that fewer of Americaâs best students will elect to pursue careers in research. One way to quantify reasonable stipend levels is through a âfunctionalâ strategy. That is, the total cost to the institution or professor of hiring a postdoc should not be less than that of hiring a research assistant or technician with the same number of years of experience subsequent to their last degree. At present, it is commonly the case that postdocs are paid appreciably less than technicians with a recent bachelorâs or masterâs degree. Even though a postdocâs compensa- tion should include career development, the primary grievance of many postdocs is that they are treated as âcheap labor,â even after five or more years of post- bachelorâs experience. SOURCES OF FUNDING The funding source defines not only the stipend level and other financial features of the grant, but also the degree of accountability of the grantee. When postdocs are supported on the research grants of PIs, they are essentially hired to work on particular projects in specific locations. The organizations that provide this grant money (such as federal agencies) award grant money to the institution where the investigator works. Some of this money provides salaries for people
90 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS designated by the investigator, who may be postdocs, graduate students, techni- cians, or others. Such grants to PIs provide the resources for much of the nationâs academic research. From the PIâs point of view, the grants afford a necessary degree of continuity for research projects and the availability of postdocs provides them with the ability to hire talented researchers at relatively low salaries. From the point of view of the funding organization, the grants enable the performance of research to meet national objectives. At the same time, it is difficult for funding organizations to influence the experience of postdocs (or graduate students) so as to ensure educational activities and opportunities for career advancement. Unless postdocs are identifiable in grant reports as postdocs (often they are not), it is also difficult to monitor their activities or subsequent careers. The second common category of funding awards includes competitive, âportableâ fellowships that postdocs may take to any institution or laboratory where they are accepted. Such fellowships, which support a small minority (per- haps 15 percent) of the postdoctoral population, are offered by a wide variety of organizations, including the NSF, NIH, private foundations, and foreign govern- ments. Organizations that award fellowships can and should track their recipients more closely and influence the quality of the experience more directly. One way they can influence the experience is to inform recipients about best practices and hold advisers accountable for a certain level of mentoring and evaluation. The most common fellowships are the NIH NRSAs. About 5,500 NRSAs (the F-32) are awarded directly to postdocs in the biomedical, behavioral, and clinical areas with the stipulation that they must identify in their application a sponsoring institution and adviser. One advantage of F-32s is that recipients can use them at any institution willing to serve as sponsor (including NIH or other government facilities). About 1,500 NRSAs in a different category (T-35) are awarded directly to institutions to support the training of postdocs in basic or clinical aspects of health science. From the postdocsâ point of view, transportable funding may provide greater flexibility to gain teaching experience, pursue coursework, shift specialties, or rotate to other labs or sectors. In some national laboratories, such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), transportable funding makes it possible, for example, for postdocs to change advisers if the relationship is not mutually productive. OPPORTUNITIES OF FUNDING ORGANIZATIONS One way funding organizations can enhance the postdoctoral experience is to tie the grant approval process more closely to good mentoring practices. Broader impacts. As models, some federal grants request that applicants for research grants provide evidence of mentoring ability. The NSF requires researchers who have received prior investigator grants to describe, when request-
THE POSTDOC AND THE FUNDING ORGANIZATION 91 ing additional funding, âany contribution to the development of human resources in science and engineering.â The NSF has also begun to ask (in 1997) for infor- mation about the âbroader impactsâ of a proposed research program, including anticipated effects on social, educational, and racial conditions. In addition to asking the adviser about plans for training the postdoc, the NIHâs NRSA application form asks for information about the sponsorâs previous trainees, including the total number of trainees, and requests more detailed infor- mation about a ârepresentative five,â including present employer and position. Funding agencies should extend this practice to request written evidence of the history of an adviserâs research and mentoring experience (e.g., publications where their former postdocs were lead authors, subsequent employment, etc.) so they can evaluate the potential advisers suitability for supervising a postdoc. Promoting best practices. Funding organizations can take other steps to improve the postdoctoral experience. All postdocs can benefit from attending professional meetings, yet many lack sufficient funds to do so. Funding organi- zations can provide competitive travel grants for this purpose. They can also provide grants (such as the Burroughs Wellcome transitional awards) to senior postdocs (sometimes promoted by universities to non-tenure track faculty posi- tions such as research assistant professor) to help in the transition to full-time positions. The period after a postdoc can bring great uncertainty and additional time may be needed to write grant proposals and/or seek the next research position. Funding organizations can specifically encourage certain activities by post- docs, such as authoring papers, mentoring technicians and graduate students, and especially teaching. By including such best practices in the language of research grants, funders can open the way for adoption by institutions and advisers. Funding can be designed to promote collaborations and reduce the isolation of postdocs. One new model is the NSFâs grants for Vertical Integration of Research and Education in the Mathematical Sciences (VIGRE). The VIGRE program was designed to support innovative educational and career-enhancing programs involving the collective participation of undergraduates, graduate stu- dents, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty. Funding temporary employment. Funding organizations can also begin to adjust to new realities of the research environment, where temporary employ- ment is now common. When postdocs who have completed their terms find themselves in such positions, they should be considered professional researchers and compensated as suchâeven if they have not achieved a tenured or other long-term position. Funding organizations can allocate a portion of their funding to interim positions for nontenured or temporary research scientists, in recogni- tion of the altered progression of science careers. The âperennial postdoc.â Funding mechanisms can help to address the phenomenon of the âperennial postdoc.â For example, organizations can design their grants in ways that differentiate between 1) PhDs who are in years 1-5 of
92 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS their postdoctoral research (primarily a training phase) and 2) PhDs who are in semi-permanent or permanent status as research scientists. Postdocs in the second category would not be considered to be âin trainingâ; instead, they would be considered employees, with commensurate standing, pay, and benefits. Addressing some inequities of funding. Funding organizations can also help eliminate inequities from the postdoctoral experience. For example, a post- doc who begins work on the adviserâs grant might win a more prestigious fellow- ship. At some institutions, however, the postdoc could then lose health and other benefits which may not be ensured under the new fellowship. Funding organiza- tions can work toward equitable provision of benefits across all granting mecha- nisms. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for example, stipulates that $5,000 of its institutional allowance for each postdoc must go into benefits. Other inequities may arise when postdocs receive small grants from non- governmental organizations, foreign governments, or other entities. Such entities should recognize that host institutions might not supplement low stipends/salaries, even though they are inadequate to live on. These funding organizations should consider requiring supplemental funding as a condition of awarding such a fellowship and/or reducing the number of postdocs funded in order to raise the stipend/salary to an appropriate level. Communicating with funding organizations. For the largest funding orga- nizations, notably the NIH and NSF, postdocs have no mechanism for communi- cating directly or regularly with the organization about the funding process or other issues of concern. Lack of communication may be especially important for postdocs supported on research grants, which are channeled through an institu- tion. A communication mechanism would create a much-needed means for post- docs to obtain information directly from the funding organization and to commu- nicate it to their postdoctoral association or institution. A national network of these associations, already connected via e-mail, is currently being formed, which would further expedite communication. Promoting good mentoring. There are many ways in which funders can design their proposal forms so as to promote good mentoring. By publicizing the goal of human resource development as vigorously as the goal of research, they would raise the value of mentoring and career guidance. Funding organizations can request evaluations that describe activities such as the use of mentoring committees for postdocs, efforts to limit the length of appointments, encourage- ment of teaching and mentoring by postdocs, and other steps that can advance the careers of postdocs. The NIHâs Mentored Research Scientist Development Award (K01) directly promotes good mentoring. Specifically, it âprovides an intensive, supervised career development experienceâ for a junior research scientist supervised by a more experienced investigator. This award asks the institution to âdemonstrate a commitment to the development of the candidate as a productive, independent investigator.â Additionally, grant guidelines note that the NIH â...may begin
THE POSTDOC AND THE FUNDING ORGANIZATION 93 requesting information essential to an assessment of the effectiveness of this program,â including the recipientâs â...employment history, publications, sup- port from research grants or contracts, honors and awards, professional activi- ties, and other information helpful in evaluating the impact of the program.â In other words, the productivity of a grantee is judged to be an indicator of the quality of the mentoring received under the grant.
94 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS SUMMARY POINTS Funding organizations can play an important role in promoting the educational component of the research they fund. This role includes the support of career development and guidance to supplement sci- entific and technical training. One of the most frequent complaints from postdocs is the low level of compensation provided by funding organizations relative to the skills and experience of the postdoc. Many funding levels, especially in the life sciences, reflect the model pay scale used by the NIH for its NRSAs, which provide a stipend for first-year trainees of $26,256. The NIH and NSF should recog- nize that they have a de facto role in setting stipend levels that are followed by others and develop criteria by which to adjust these levels. The underlying assumption of most traineeships or fellowships is that the postdoctoral scholar receives, in addition to the stipend, both technical instruction and career guidance that can lead to improved abilities and career satisfaction in the future. Funding organizations can work toward ensuring that the acquisition of career skills and career development is indeed part of the postdoctoral experience. Most postdocs are paid directly as employees on a PIs research grant. The NIH and other funding organizations have few mechanisms to monitor the experience of these postdocs, and they tend to regard the administration of research grants as the institutionâs responsibility. Funding organizations can promote good oversight and guidance of postdocs through requests for mentoring information on proposal forms, promotion of mentoring committees, limits on the length of appointments, support for health care benefits, and support of teach- ing activities by postdocs.