A little while back I wrote a blog post called “Shorter PhDs and more active thesis committees,” which proposed that PhD programs finish in 4 to 5 years and that thesis committees take a more active role in the future career options of their students. The formal degree structure permits such suggestions and their broad application, but what happens when you graduate and enter the black hole of a postdoctoral fellowship? There is no degree, no formal university structure, no defined endpoint, and a huge amount of variability in the reasons people find themselves there.
This makes broadly applicable solutions much more difficult in postdoctoral land, but it does not prohibit the identification of the key issues facing this cohort of early career researchers and the proposal of some solutions that can be picked up by individual institutions. In my mind, the quality of postdoctoral fellow training is compromised by three core issues:
- The supervisor holds all the cards – salary, promotion, contacts, reference letters, and people who work with/for them – and therefore has an incredible impact on the postdoc’s future success. If there is an issue with a supervisor, there are few outlets and this can definitely lead to a wide range of unproductive and unhappy situations.
- Non-academic careers are seen as a failure. You’ll notice in my PhD post that I used the word demonized and here I’ve used failure. This is because I think the problem is different at the postdoctoral level. By choosing to undertake postdoctoral work, one loses the career story line of “I did my PhD with the intention of moving into a career in ____” and the majority indeed set out to pursue the professor path. When this option is selected against (for any number of reasons), the default position by many is to see the career move as a failure to reach the goal of professor.
- Smart people don’t like to fail. There are two problems here. The first is that most people in the group of postdoctoral fellows who do not have a sufficient CV or skill set to become a professor do not admit it (and I want to stress to men that you are more likely to have this reality/expectation disconnect than women). The second problem is that making the lateral move to another career is challenging to explain or justify (despite it often being the best decision for everyone).
A secondary mentor program would be a simple and inexpensive way to help deal with many of these issues. The key characteristics/components of such a program could be:
- non-mandatory – if the postdoctoral fellow does not wish to use a formal mentor structure, they should not be required to do so.
- regular checkups – this would be up to individual departments/institutes, but should probably be at least once a year and would need to take place with some regular frequency.
- confidentiality – an agreement not to discuss confidential items with the postdoctoral fellow’s supervisor (e.g. non-academic career pursuits).
- career assessment – the secondary mentor should provide advice on whether the career goals are realistic considering the CV and research skills of the fellow.
Such a program would not only benefit postdoctoral fellows but would also serve to make faculty mentors aware of the different options (internships, jobs, workshops, etc.) being considered and pursued by trainees in their departments. Moreover, it would give the postdoctoral fellow a second port of call for collaboration suggestions, research advice and even a reference letter from someone with a formal role in their training.
A much larger issue that will be the focus of future ramblings will be the dire need for young researchers to take their own careers into their hands. Very few people will be tapped on the shoulder to be tempted away from an academic setting and making such a change requires an active interest from the postdoctoral fellow themselves.
The next post in this mini-series will focus on simple suggestions for helping out at the early career researcher stage (and the hopeful transition to tenure track). Until then!
Investment opportunities such as those provided by crowdfunding websites inevitably carry risks, and the major issue raised in the fallout of America’s recent JOBS Act and reiterated in response to my last article by one of our own readers, has been the unnecessary and wide-ranging exposure of public investors to scam artists. Indeed, investment platforms such as those offered by Kickstarter, Petridish and Kiva, among many others, offer no security that monies collected from advertised fundraising ventures will be used to support the projects they market – a practice that is currently being addressed in academia with the filing of regular progress reports.
While the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States is presumably rewriting its rules to protect the public from scammers, a bigger cause for concern is the time-proven truth that most businesses fail. This is doubly true for research, and I often brag that my lab has a nearly 1% success rate. Moreover, present private iterations of the crowdfunding model for science do not provide prospective investors with a robust history of the investigator, academic institution, or research proposal on which to form a sufficiently educated opinion of feasibility – something federal funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health in the United States and the Canadian Institute of Health Research in Canada have been addressing through the use of peer review committees for years.
Lastly, there is the question of visible return on investment. While most public companies have dealt with this in the form of financial revenues proportional to share holdings for their investors, non-profit organizations such as Kiva have re-branded public investments as “loans” which the investor is returned upon successful completion of an advertised venture. In the interim, both public companies and non-profit institutions hold shareholder meetings or otherwise publish updates to keep investors informed of the progress being made as a result of their initial/continued investments.
A major advantage of this practice is that it reconnects investors with the projects they help support and forces the recipients of public dollars to justify their ventures. Although researchers must inevitably report to the funding agencies that support them, most of these agencies are themselves funded by the public and do very little to communicate the value those initial investments (mostly derived from taxes, in the case of federal programs) help create. What results is a disconnect between science and benefit where most people have a very limited grasp of the underlying state of the art in any given research discipline, and less idea still of the advancement in that field they themselves are funding. This was recently illustrated by a 2012 Gallup poll confirming that a whopping 46% of Americans still believe in creationism – a percentage that has all but remained static in the last 30 years!
“What a strange set of historical circumstances, what odd disconnect between science and society, can explain the paradox of organic evolution – the central operating concept of an entire discipline – remains such a focus of controversy, even widespread disbelief, in contemporary America?” (Stephen Jay Gould, 1999)
As a result, major advancements the public should be congratulating themselves on having helped achieve are all but being ignored. Without question this has long-lasting implications on how society approaches policy decisions, most recently exemplified by the issues surrounding climate change – a topic about which scientists have been publishing for years. One solution is to have federal governments host crowdfunding initiatives apart from their traditional research grants through existing research institutes. This will be the topic of my next post.
Before we get to today’s post, a final reminder for postdoctoral fellows to help inform the policy that governs their status, salaries and future opportunities in Canada by filling out the CAPS postdoctoral survey. Earlier this month, I wrote a UA news article on its importance and encourage you all to read through it and forward to your postdoctoral colleagues (including international postdocs in Canada and Canadian funded postdocs abroad!) – today is the last day for the survey, so please consider filling it out. And now, back to our regular programming:
Last month, a colleague (thanks Steve!) forwarded me a correspondence in Nature that complained about the enormous amount of wasted time that goes into preparing grant proposals. The authors extrapolated that over 400 years of cumulative researcher time in Australia alone was spent on preparing applications that would not get funded. In some small defence of the current system, it is important to give appropriate consideration to the best experimental design and the best team of collaborators and researchers to work on the project and this should take time, though some streamlining would almost certainly help curb some wasted effort.
Importantly, this link got me thinking about other places where researchers waste time and the most egregious example of time wasting has to be the submission of the same research paper to multiple different journals each with their own style requirements. Authors will spend weeks altering the same data set and core ideas to fit the new journal’s style, resulting in a colossal waste of researcher time and money. This could all be solved with a simplified and unified submission style that was accepted by all journals. Post-acceptance, authors would be more than happy to spend weeks making it fit the journal’s style and requirements.
Prior to acceptance, peer reviewers are being asked to judge whether or not the research paper has the necessary quality and scope for a journal. It does not really matter what font, reference style, or abstract length the manuscript uses or even whether or not the results and discussion are one section or two. What matters is the quality of the research and ideas and whether they fit with the journal.
The current system burns through hours of potentially productive research time while the manuscript gets bounced through two or three journals’ individualized peer review systems. A unified paper submission style would result in quicker turnaround times, less peer review burden (since all papers would have essentially the same structure), and should require minimal effort to enact worldwide. The one concession I would make is to have options for “short paper” (e.g. 2-3 display items) or “long paper” (5-7 display items) to best match with journal options for brief reports and full articles.
The core components of any life science paper are the same across the major journals: a brief summary, some context for why the experiments are being undertaken, a description of the experimental results and the implications of these results for the wider field.
I challenge our readers to give me any reason why we should not push for a single paper submission style as soon as possible.
As tighter budgets and struggling economies drive a need for new sources of funding, the internet is proving to be invaluable in raising awareness of projects across previously closed regional and national boundaries. A potentially game-changing evolution of social media is the very recent emergence of crowd funding for basic research.
Crowd funding is the practice of raising small amounts of cash from large numbers of ordinary people, and (not surprisingly) has strong roots in the private market. There, start-ups and small companies often vie for investment to help raise their projects off the ground. While only a very small proportion of start-ups succeed, risky investments can produce significant gains and venture capital firms mitigate this risk by betting on hundreds of different companies. Companies that can turn a profit are used to cover the losses of the rest.
In this regard the private market is not unlike basic research, and online crowd-funding websites such as Kiva have shown that feelings of involvement and social gain can be leveraged against operating costs to support, through hundreds of thousands of small donations, projects that would have otherwise gone unfunded. While the investment in such start-ups was, until very recently, restricted to “accredited investors” – a euphemism for a small number of very rich people – the promise afforded by the current online incarnation of crowd funding has caused the business world to take notice.
Just last year, U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law the JOBS Act (Jumpstarting Our Business Startups), which included a provision legalizing crowd funding for small businesses to take effect in 2013. Small businesses are not the only ones that stand to gain, and among those companies currently leading the charge in applying the crowd-funding model to basic research are Sciflies, Rockethub, FundaGeek, The Open Source Science Project, Petridish and Kickstarter.
The concept is simple: researchers start by describing and pricing a project, which is submitted to a crowd-funding website for approval. If accepted, the pitch is placed on-line and donors have between a few weeks to a few months to read the proposal and make a donation. Although individual donations are often in the $10 to $250 range, these stack up quickly. Proposals reaching their mark cash out at the end of their funding window, while those falling short do not – and the money is returned to the donors. In this way crowd funding can help scientists fund their research projects by tapping a previously neglected resource (and without the administrative burden traditional funding sources demand).
More importantly, this also provides a long sought after venue by which scientific investigators can more robustly engage the public in their research projects from the incipient stage, rather than through publication in specialist journals that are all but inaccessible to the average layperson. While new investment opportunities inevitably carry risks, these are not insurmountable, and will be the focus of my next post.
It’s the one-year anniversary of the Black Hole moving over to University Affairs. Jonathan and I are very pleased with the added exposure and it’s been a real treat to work with Léo, Peggy and company over the last 12 months – Happy Anniversary! We hope that our readers have enjoyed the content and that they continue to follow along and contribute with excellent comments and guest posts.
Another important message attached to this summary, though, is for postdoctoral fellows to help inform the policy that governs their status, salaries and future opportunities in Canada by filling out the CAPS postdoctoral survey. Last week, I wrote a UA news article on its importance and encourage you all to read through it and forward to your postdoctoral colleagues (including international postdocs in Canada and Canadian postdocs abroad!).
The January to March period has been quite active on the site, with wonderful back-and-forth commentary and great ideas coming from our readers. This is exactly the type of activity that allows us to seek to fill any gaps we have in the blog topics and adjust the messages that we deliver from our life sciences backgrounds to be more inclusive and relevant for other fields. Please do keep the contributions coming.
January-March blog posts:
- Success in research requires stability: The long con
- Cause and effect in scientific funding
- Patenting at academic institutes
- Capital gains in the knowledge market
- The importance of leaving academic science on good terms
- Planning Ahead: How many of you are there and who will pay you?
- Fewer postdocs with higher salaries? Hold your horses!
- Shorter PhDs and more active thesis committees
- 2013 taxes for Canadian postdocs: The goal is consistency
Nearly 25% of the total traffic was generated by the Shorter PhDs and more active thesis committees post which also had a good following on reddit where the discussion was lengthy (85 comments!) – this sets a good precedent for the forthcoming articles on proposed solutions for the postdoctoral and early career researcher articles to come out this quarter.
Comments on the UA site were also quite regular with excellent discussions on Jonathan’s “Misallocated Incentives“ article and my “Fewer Postdocs at Higher Salaries” article. One thing that definitely resonates with us over and over is the tendency for our posts to focus on the life sciences. It’s difficult for us to write with any authority on other fields and while there are many parallels that we feel are worth talking about generally, there are also many people from other fields that do not find themselves in the same situation for many topics. As always, we would welcome posts from those in other fields – especially on topics such as sessional positions, temporary contracts, and non-academic careers.
- In addition to the UA news article, I wrote an article for the Signals Blog (formerly the Canadian Stem Cell Network blog) on stem cell bioenergetics.
- Our fellow UA blogger (Melonie from Speculative Diction) was published in the Globe and Mail, “Who will hire all the PhDs? Not Canada’s universities.”
One way of recovering costs for federally funded research is by having governments proportionately included in intellectual property agreements resulting from their angel investments. While not all projects are ultimately profitable, funds allocated to university investigators for basic research should be regarded as a diversified investment portfolio from which successful ventures offset risk. As lab-bench discoveries are translated to bedside technologies, funding agencies can earn profits from their grants, encouraging further funding through re-investment. Crafting a mutually beneficial relationship of this sort would keep politicians from having to choose between funding basic research (popularly believed to be a welfare practice) and supporting economic growth; which is a false dichotomy.
And why not? Unlike schools that return government investments in education through often hard-to-measure societal gains, biomedical research is a multi-billion-dollar industry whose money trail is easier to follow. Citizens invest in biomedical research through taxes, and federal monies often constitute the majority of laboratory funds for a research program. At American institutes such as Brigham and Women’s Hospital, overhead resulting from federal grants are set at 76% (and nearing 40% at major Canadian universities), which supports the institutional costs associated with maintaining an active research centre (See my earlier post, “Misallocated incentives in an already cash-strapped grants system.”)
At major American research institutes this money covers investigator, personnel and administrative salaries as well, such that only actively funded investigators can afford to be retained. At smaller American institutes and most Canadian universities, investigators receive a salary and a small research stipend from their employers while the majority of research funds are dependent on outside sources like private and federal awards. Uniquely, while the cost of basic research is borne almost entirely by citizens, discoveries resulting from academic labs belong exclusively to the research institute. Depending on the institute, a minor (and often variable) percentage of the intellectual property agreement is also awarded to the principal investigator for their contribution to the discovery (see “Patenting in academic institutes.”)
Were taxpayers to claim a proportional share of profit rights resulting from the scientific discoveries they helped support (which should constitute at least a small part of the investment, taken from the research institution’s share, not the investigator’s), it should be possible to make the academic knowledge market self-sustainable. Indeed, a lawsuit brought against a major academic research institute by the federal government would help clarify what research institutes do to deserve exclusive patent rights on research discoveries that are mostly supported by taxpayer dollars.
Instituting regulations that track federal research investments and resultant financial gains will also let us more accurately gauge the economic value of basic science such that future societal discussions on research spending can rely on something more tangible than emphatic arguments on both sides. To help close the funding circle, improve the public image of research scientists, and allow citizens to become more personally invested in the knowledge market they financially support, these numbers should be published online. An example of this can be gleaned from the microlending website Kiva, and like it, research labs should be required to publicize descriptions and operating costs for projects for which crowd-funding ventures such as government grants support.
Each year, our site gets flooded with visitors looking for information on taxation policy with respect to Canadian postdocs. Of course, much of this enthusiasm was sparked by the decision in Budget 2010 of the Canadian Government to stipulate specifically that the 2006 scholarship exemption would not be applicable to postdoctoral fellowships. Some of our readers are no doubt part of that affected cohort (2006-2009) and may find information they are looking for in our previous entries:
- 2012 Taxes for Postdocs: Dredging up the Past
- 2011 Taxes for Postdocs: At least we know the rules this year
- The CRA response to CAPS (guest blogger Carl Wonders)
- Let the Discussions Begin (guest blogger Marianne Stanford)
- 2010 Canadian Taxes: Did you get your T2202 and T4a?
- Budget 2010: Post Docs, be careful what you wish for…
The inconsistent status of postdoctoral fellows across the country has resulted in some very unfortunate personal situations for our highest tier of young academics, including back-dated claims from the Canada Revenue Agency of thousands of dollars, long legal battles and differences of several thousands of dollars of take home pay for postdoctoral fellows due to receiving a different tax form for the exact same national fellowship.
For those who started postdoctoral fellowships in 2010 and beyond, the rules are much clearer, though things are not particularly satisfying when the relative compensation of graduate students and postdocs is considered. There are swathes of graduate students on tax-exempt Canada Graduate Scholarships worth $35,000, many of whom will move on to postdoctoral positions that result in less take-home pay (~55% of postdocs reported earning $40,000 and under in a 2009 Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS) survey).
From a federal tax perspective, it is abundantly clear that postdoctoral fellow income is now fully taxable irrespective of the tax form you may have been issued. Note that (as I understand it) the Quebec provincial government still recognizes postdoctoral fellows (and their fellowships) as a component of training and the monies received are not taxed at the provincial level, but please do consult your local postdoctoral society for the best, most up-to-date information.
The argument put forth by the government in their response to the CAPS letters about the scholarship exemption and its applicability to postdoctoral fellows was that postdoctoral fellows – like training lawyers, accountants, and medical residents – are engaged in a temporary period of advanced training. This comparison reveals two issues that require major national lobbying efforts to address:
Unlike the comparator groups:
- The vast majority of postdoctoral fellows will NOT end up in the profession that they are purportedly training for.
- Postdoctoral fellows wages often are static, extended benefits are not always available, and there is often no access to EI or Canada Pension.
In the post-Budget 2010 world, these are the core issues that need to be addressed. Postdoctoral fellows need to figure out who they are and what they do and present it in a clear and coherent manner to policymakers. I would also encourage our readers to volunteer just a little of their time to help out with the efforts of their local postdoc association and with the national CAPS group.
It seems that my last post created a bit of a stir and unfortunately I was away for a week and didn’t catch up to the comments right away. I think it’s important based on those comments to clarify a few things about my perspective on this before going into ways that we can manage the core issues.
First, I am not advocating for low postdoctoral salaries in Canada – far from it. I know there are many underpaid and undervalued highly educated people out there and the crisis is especially bad in the humanities (low to no funding) and life sciences (very lengthy doctoral and postdoctoral terms). The main point I was trying to make in the article was that we need to provide good sound reasoning why increases are needed and where the money should come from. I also would stress again that the idea of paying more grant dollars into salary will not be palatable without such a measured approach.
Second, I do not view academic research like a private-sector capitalist endeavour and find the comparison to coal mining unfair. To me, research is the stuff governments pay to get done for the public because the private sector won’t pay for it. Unfortunately, that gives academic researchers extraordinarily little bargaining power – if we stop doing academic research, few will notice the effect immediately. Moreover, coal miners worked in the 1800s because they had to in order to feed families. Despite the chronic undervaluing of postdoctoral fellows, these postdocs are not starving nor do they have “no other option” to make more money – they can (and do) leave. It doesn’t mean that academic researchers should be poorly paid, but it does again mean that the case for increases needs to be strongly argued and well justified.
One other point from the comments is the one that Erika made, SB and BP echoed and Paul delivered home strongly – the current system drives people out for the wrong reasons and we are losing excellent people by chronically undervaluing and failing to support them properly. I agree with you all and hope that I’m not ignoring the points in the proposal below (part 1) and in future posts on postdoctoral fellows (part 2) and early career investigators (part 3).
Part 1: Graduate training
The best way to reduce the strain on the system and still produce highly educated people is to have students enter and exit graduate programs with great speed and great motivation. The first step to this solution is that Master’s degrees that take 3+ years and PhDs that take 6+ years simply must stop. As the majority of students who obtain a PhD will not become professors, it is a terrible investment of their time, monies and energy to focus on highly specialized research for such a period. I constantly hear the argument that more years afford more opportunities to get more publications and I cannot deny the truth in that, but that is a metric for those pursuing academic careers and could easily be accomplished with 1-2 years of postdoctoral research in the same group for those that wish to finish up such projects. For the remainder of people, they should go off (actively!) to non-tenure track careers before becoming completely alienated by academia.
Aside from shortening the time to obtain degrees, there needs to be better management of the people being produced and the key to this is active and honest career guidance from thesis committees and departments. There are three big problems in the way we currently train:
- Students do not know what their options are.
- Non-academic careers are demonized.
- Students who lack the skills to become a tenure-track professor are not being told in an honest way. At a minimum, such weaknesses should be identified so they can be addressed throughout the PhD.
These problems are addressable, but solutions require some tough conversations and some even tougher shifts in mentality along with a modest amount of resources. The most effective route of ensuring these points are addressed at the graduate student level has to be through thesis committees, but institutions should also play a role.
Thesis committees should be mandated to enquire about and record (and possibly even assess) a student’s post-graduation intentions at annual meetings. This will not only force consideration of non-academic careers, but also show the student that professors value such careers and the individual student’s development. The skeptic will say that professors don’t value other careers and such advice will be lip service and, in some cases, I would agree. This is where the shift in mentality has to occur and these outcomes and records might need to be tied to funding, promotion, etc., in order to work. I suspect (and hope) that the latter could be avoided through good departmental record keeping and consistency in institutional graduate program training requirements.
Wedded to this active career management is the need for institutions to provide specialized career services for students. A great example of such programs is what my current institution does in the way of careers advice and professional skills training. Much of this is restricted to internal websites, but do click for an overview of careers and skills initiatives. The most promising programs that I have come across are private one-to-one career advice sessions, mock interview panels for academic and non-academic positions, and specialized workshops on communication skills for life scientists.
Point 3 is a little bit harder as it will be tough to tell clever people that they aren’t quite clever enough or cite poor oral, written, teaching, or supervision skills as insurmountable deficiencies to an academic career. The problem will be amplified by some students’ inability to receive criticism and this again stresses the need for committees to be involved with legitimate benchmarking exercises. If someone’s oral presentation skills are bad in year 1, tell them they need to improve them and support their attendance to workshops, conferences, etc. Check back in a year and ask “what have you done to improve your communication skills?” – if the answer is “nothing,” then students are digging their own grave.
Overall, we need to encourage active career management in order to avoid surprises for students about the chances of an academic career, the options outside of academic, and the utility of a PhD. This needs to be done by individual students primarily, but needs strong support from universities and supervisory committees.
In a couple of weeks, I’ll tackle the postdoctoral fellow cohort and finish off with solutions for early career researchers.
I thought I would take the opportunity this week to share with you a personal story regarding a recent academic milestone. My research focuses on platelet production, and earlier this year I filed a provisional patent, through Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School on a platelet bioreactor I developed that recapitulates human bone marrow physiology.
This project was funded primarily through my supervisors R01 (basic research grant from the National Institute of Health), my American Society of Hematology research fellowship, and to a lesser extent a joint Brigham and Women’s Hospital Translational Technologies Innovation grant. Development of this technology will *hopefully* be supported by a K99/R00 (career transition grant also from the National Institute of Health), for which a final decision is still being awaited due to the United States government’s decision to enact the sequestration, and will constitute the basis of a patent application at the end of 2013.
The funding sources are relevant because the filing of a patent requires policy decisions on the distribution of annual income resulting from the patented invention. Different institutions will have different intellectual property policies, and the following reflect those of hospitals affiliated with Partners HealthCare System – a non-profit organization that owns several hospitals, including Brigham and Women’s Hospital. For the sake of brevity, these are summarized below:
- Institutions contributing to the intellectual property will determine the initial split of profits resulting from the invention (after payment of patent expenses) based upon the relative amount of research that was performed by the primary investigators at the contributing institutions. In our case this was an 80/20 split between Brigham and Women’s Hospital where I hold my primary appointment, and Harvard University.
- Each institution will then split its institutional share according to its own institutional intellectual property policy. For Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the policy stipulates a 25% share accorded to the institute, a 25% share accorded to the department, a 25% share accorded to the creator’s laboratory, and a 25% share accorded to the creators.
- Indirect costs will be taken out of the laboratory and creators’ share at the institutional rate. In the United States this rate is negotiated with the National Institute of Health, and presently sits at 76% for Brigham and Women’s Hospital. This laboratory share must be held within the hosting institute and cannot follow a departing investigator outside of a Partners affiliated hospital. The creators’ share can follow the investigator and is subject to the new institutional rate if/when the investigator moves.
- Investigators become subject to the intellectual property policy as soon as their employment begins at a Partners affiliated hospital. This clause is common to most research institutions.
I highlight these points because research programs, such as mine, deriving primarily from government grants (that are themselves funded entirely by taxpayer dollars), are already subject to the annually agreed-upon indirect cost rate, which presently sits at 76% for Brigham and Women’s Hospital. In my case, development of our platelet bioreactor was supported almost entirely from the remaining 24% from which the institution and department claim another 50% collectively after patenting expenses. The remaining 50% set aside for the lab and creators is then taxed at a further 76%, leaving 12% of profits resulting from the invention to be distributed amongst the inventors. Half of that cannot leave the research institution.
In the case where I elect to continue on at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, I am left with a 2.4% share of my own invention (~1.2% if I decide to leave). Considering that fringe, infrastructure, and administrative costs are already collected from the indirect rate before commencement of the research program, and that patenting expenses are recovered before profit sharing, I cannot help but feel this number is disproportionately low. More important is the observation that federal programs, such as the National Institute of Health that is primarily funding this work with taxpayer dollars, is not a shareholder in the product. Given that the National Institute of Health’s inflation-adjusted budget is presently ~20% lower than in 2003 and has been unable to keep pace with the growing demand for research in this country, perhaps it is time we reassess the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 and consider new funding structures that would see federal agencies such as the National Institute of Health become self-reliant – perhaps by allowing funding agencies to retain a share of resulting patents proportional to their investment.
There has been a lot of rumbling over the last few years about how poorly compensated postdoctoral fellows are and how the system churns out too many doctoral students. Many have suggested that the best solution is to trim the number of positions and increase the salaries of those remaining. However, I suspect that many of the people arguing for better pay and fewer postdoc positions do not consider that they might be part of the cohort who would lose their jobs if such a measure were undertaken.
I imagine that just about everyone would like to have more money and more job security, so I always find the “pay me more” arguments tough to swallow unless they are backed up with some good reasons and a clear plan for how things will be paid for. There are certainly good examples of exploited and underpaid postdoctoral fellows – I know this is especially prevalent in Canada and would love to remedy it. However, there are several things one must bear in mind before proposing radical solutions that involve removing swathes of people from the most productive and independent part of their academic careers.
- The research needs to get done – cutting the number of postdoctoral fellows means fewer hands, and fewer heads, undertaking research. If you told a leading scientist that their lab would shrink by one-third and they would pay the same amount of money to accommodate salary increases, they would not need to be a mathematics professor to disfavour this approach.
- Some projects work out and others do not – the postdoctoral period of research is a time of great independence and involves undertaking very risky/adventurous research projects that often do not work out. We all understand this does not necessarily reflect on the innate abilities of a particular person, but if we don’t let the risky projects get started, then they won’t ever be tried.
- Selecting the “lucky ones” will be really, really hard - we already find ourselves in a state where fellowship applications get ranked as “fundable”, but do not end up getting funded.
- The squeaky wheel gets the grease – the vast majority of complaints seem to come from two places: the life sciences and the humanities. One suffers from chronic underfunding (humanities) and arguably deserves a greater share of the research pie, while the other (life sciences) suffers from over-subscription where hordes of trainees end up competing for the same jobs and spend 4-6 years (or longer!) as a postdoctoral fellow before getting past the first round of a job search.
In the life sciences, I feel that this debate always gets confused because it comes back to the two reasons that people find themselves in postdoctoral fellow positions:
- Academic training (i.e., a springboard to a PI job)
- Research (i.e., they enjoy doing bench science, and want a career doing it)
I see the former as a group who would tolerate lower pay for a few years to get the potential independence and security of a tenure track post and I see the latter as those who want a stable career in science asap (i.e. higher pay, benefits, etc). If two such groups are classed as one and the same by institutions (or themselves!), it is a guaranteed recipe for big fights about how to best represent the core issues of postdoctoral fellows.
Overall, I don’t like the idea of cutting off people from the academic track before the postdoctoral stage. Therefore I think a sensible approach is to create a system that allows postdoctoral fellows begin their training but regularly challenges them to consider alternatives. I’ll be describing the core components of this system in my next post – stay tuned.