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THE BLACK HOLE

Slowly but surely, postdoc advocacy is working

Postdocs play an important role in the scientific enterprise and yet they often seem to slip through the cracks.

By BRIANNE KENT | DEC 12 2018

Postdocs play an important role in the scientific enterprise and yet they often seem to slip through the cracks. Although often referred to as “trainees”, postdocs are not students and they are also not faculty, which leaves room for ambiguity around their status at institutions. As competition for tenure-track faculty positions in academia has increased, the duration of the average postdoc has also increased and postdocs now represent a much larger cohort of researchers. Because of this, postdocs have been organizing locally and internationally to advocate for changes needed to better support scientists in the early stages of their career. The good news is that this advocacy is working. Institutions, journals, funding agencies, and policy makers are starting to address some of the issues.

One of the most prominent advocacy organizations is Future of Research, which started as a grassroots movement in Boston, to create a forum for early career researchers (ECRs; i.e., graduate students, postdocs, and new principal investigators) to discuss important systemic flaws in the scientific enterprise.  The first event was a symposium held in Boston on October 2-3, 2014 with the goal of discussing how increased competition for research funds and academic positions were creating challenges for training and workforce stability in U.S. biomedical research. The proceedings from the initial meeting called for greater transparency, connectivity, and funding for ECRs and were published in the open-access journal F1000.

In the few years since the very first Future of Research symposium, the organization has successfully advocated for improvements to problems facing the next generation of research leaders in the U.S. For example, Future of Research helped to successfully advocate for federal policy changes, including compliance of U.S. universities with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA; came into effect December 1, 2016), which required institutions to raise the minimum salaries for postdocs to $47,476 or to provide “overtime payment” for working more than 40 hours per week. Despite the significant effort to reduce the potential impact of the FLSA changes on higher education, with specific requests to specifically exempt postdocs based on their “trainee” status, it was concluded by the U.S. department of labor that postdocs were “employees” and their salaries must comply with the FLSA, thus establishing minimum salaries for all postdocs in the U.S. Future of Research has published an overview of these changes as they monitor compliance in the U.S. It is noteworthy that even after the FLSA updates were eventually ruled invalid by the courts as of August 31, 2017, many academic institutions went ahead with changes to policies to raise postdoc salaries.

As part of the efforts to monitor the impact of the FLSA, Future of Research has used Freedom of Information requests at public U.S. universities to get job titles and salaries of postdocs. Their efforts were summarized this week in a blog post by the executive director, Dr. Gary McDowell. The data suggests that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) policies determine U.S. postdoc salaries, such that institutions use the NIH policies as a benchmark for all postdocs. The data also suggests that postdocs are making decisions based on salaries, which is an important factor to consider when trying to attract and retain the most talented ECRs.

Future of Research has also called for greater transparency in career outcomes so that trainees have more information about career prospects in academia and outside of academia. Their advocacy was a significant part of the push for outcomes being released by the Coalition for Next Generation Life Science, which is a coalition of 10 universities and research institutes that launched in December 2017 and published the first data on February 1, 2018.

The success of Future of Research in the U.S. inspired ECRs to advocate for change in Canada as well. So far there have been two symposia, one in Calgary (2016) and one in Vancouver (2017).  These Canadian symposia followed the same format as those run in the U.S. and were focused around four questions:

  1. How can trainees be better prepared for careers in science?
  2. How should the supply of postdocs and graduate students be matched to demand to create sustainable, secure career pathways for young researchers?
  3. How can the funding of science research in Canada be structured to balance and promote basic research, knowledge translation, and training of the next generation of scientists?
  4. How can the current system of incentives be fixed so that scientists and institutions are rewarded for the behaviours that are believed to support good science?

The proceedings from the Vancouver event have been published at F1000, and highlight the need to improve ECR-targeted funding, guidelines for mentorship and training, and increased partnerships with industry to better prepare trainees for non-academic careers.

Advocacy is slowly working in Canada.  In 2016, the University of British Columbia conducted a PhD Career Outcome Survey of 3805 students who graduated between 2005 and 2013. Later that year, the University of Toronto followed and released their 10,000 PhDs Project, which compiled and analyzed PhD outcomes in a database detailing the employment status of PhDs who graduated from the University of Toronto between 2000 and 2015 across all disciplines. The results suggest that ~ 30 percent are in tenure stream faculty jobs and  ~10 percent are postdocs or research associates.

The Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS-ACSP) also announced four key policy recommendations at the recent Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa. Similar to the Future of Research proposals, CAPS-ACSP recommends: (1) monitoring the number of postdocs and employment outcomes, (2) establishing minimum standards for postdoctoral salary support, (3) classifying postdocs working in Canada as employees, and (4) establishing a uniform national policy on postdoctoral training.

In Canada, changes to the scientific enterprise are needed to ensure the retention of diverse talent. Hopefully the progress being made in the U.S. to legally establish postdocs as “employees” with minimum salary requirements will help advocacy efforts north of the 49th parallel. Making science more efficient and supportive of the brightest minds will ensure that research is having the greatest benefit for Canadian society.

ABOUT BRIANNE KENT
Brianne Kent
Brianne Kent is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of British Columbia. Her research examines the changes in sleep and circadian rhythms associated with Alzheimer's disease. Follow her on Twitter: @Brianne_Kent.
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