Are Stable Research Career Tracks the Solution to "Structural Disequilibria" in the NIH Racket?

August 6, 2008

A Policy Forum piece by Michael S. Teitelbaum in Science opines at length on the so-called “structural disequilibria” in biomedical research [h/t: writedit]. This is mostly a recitation of all of the familiar NIH funding woes (including reference to the NIH budget undoubling analysis); if not entirely novel in theme, at least there is a new focus here since Teitelbaum is arguing that until serious changes in the structure of the biomedical research/funding enterprise are put into place we will continue to experience boom/bust cycles no matter what the NIH budget may be. Much is familiar so your eyes may have glazed over after the first or second sub-sections. I wish to draw your attention to something interesting Teitelbaum mentioned right at the end.

He ends the piece with a series of recommendations of which one is that we may need:

New mechanisms to better align the Ph.D.-postdoc systems with demand in the labor market for their graduates, e.g.,
b. Allowing increases in NIH research funds to support career-path biomedical research positions (e.g., professional staff scientist positions) at research institutions rather than depending on temporary students and/or trainees.

This is a relatively common theme of disgruntled post-doc’ing. Some people come to the realization at some point that their career ambitions would be well served by a stable position as a research scientist. Someone who toils away at the bench, in the field or equivalent, conducting and overseeing studies, analyzing data, writing papers without the many, many headaches of being an independent PI with a professorial appointment.
The fact of the matter is that many, many Ph.D. wielding individuals are in the process of serving out such a career. The trouble is that it is not a stable, formal job category. So anyone who makes it to retirement, does so by matter of a series of accidental or lucky steps in joining a lab or labs that can sustain the stable level of funding that is required to maintain very senior Ph.D. level non-PI scientists. This makes this particular ambition a fairly dodgy one.
So what do people with such ambitions do instead? Well, some people jump to industry positions of one sort or another…BigPharma or big/medium biotech. Some just grit their teeth and jump from lab to lab if they have to. Others try for faculty / PI jobs…even though they may not actually want to do so.
I think Teitelbaum’s point is that particularly this latter issue increases the pressure with respect to the stream of new PIs with new labs which must get funded with NIH grants. Pressure which might be alleviated by creating a way for individuals who do not want to be PIs with big labs to have a reasonable expectation of a professional career doing the science that they love.
I’ll need to be convinced of that. What I do not need to be convinced of is the value of having a stable career path for people who just want to be scientists (in academic labs) without the pressure to jump up to PI-dom. First, because I know quite a number of such people and can see how their contributions to science are great- while recognizing there is no way they are cut out to be PIs. Second because selfishly as a PI, I’d love to get a whack at such an individual in my own lab.
Let me just jump up even higher on my soap box here for a minute and remind you all. The time is still ripe for things to change at the NIH. A fair review would have to admit that much of the hot air of the past two years has started to result in tangible alterations. NIH is listening and many things that turn up in opinion pieces in the GlamourMags have a way of becoming themes for much additional discussion- including from NIH powers that be. So start talking about this issue if you think it is of value.
I have a modest suggestion, of course. The K05 mechanism. Or rather, something much like the K05. The NIAAA and NIDA version of the K05 is the “Senior Scientist Research and Mentorship Award” of which the Executive Summary says:

The Senior Scientist Research and Mentorship Award (K05) is intended to provide protected time for outstanding senior scientists who have demonstrated a sustained high level of productivity conducting biomedical research relevant to the scientific mission of the appropriate institute to focus on their research and to provide mentoring of new investigators.
It is expected that most candidates will request five years of support; requests must be for a minimum of three years. Awards may be renewed one time for up to an additional five-year period.
The K05 award will provide salary support of 75 percent of the institutional base salary (up to the current Federal salary cap limit for NIAAA applicants; up to $90,000 for NIDA applicants) for up to five years based on a full-time, 12-month staff appointment, plus fringe benefits. The candidate must devote a total of 75 percent of full-time effort to the proposed program, with at least 25 percent of that effort directed towards mentorship activities.
Candidates must be outstanding established senior scientists and recognized leaders in their field of research, and be able to demonstrate the need for a period of intensive research focus as a means of enhancing their research career and a need for protected time to conduct their mentoring activities.
Candidates are expected to have independent, peer-reviewed research grant support at the time of submitting the K05 application. Additional funds will not be provided to support the applicant’s research activities.
[emphasis added]

The NCI version says similar things but this is the only other announcement I’m finding at the moment.
What a schweet deal. The K05 is apparently for well-funded PIs to leverage their position by gaining what is essentially salary support and/or buy-out from other institutional responsibilities (like teaching or clinical duties, I assume). Let me tell you that from the perspective of a soft-money investigator this would be a VeryGoodThing to acquire. Ahem. But I’m off track.
Suppose something like this were made available for career Ph.D. scientists as essentially a fellowship. Without any requirement for a professorial appointment and minimal actual research component. The important point being that it is applied for, awarded to and evaluated for renewal by the career scientist with every expectation that this is a career award. There would be details of course. You’d have to have a host lab at most times- but allow for transition if one lab loses grant support or something. Nice and easy for the supported career scientist to find a new lab, don’t you think? “Hey, PI Smith, I have my salary supported and I’d like to come play in your lab…” would go over quite nicely. Progress could be evaluated just as with any other award, keeping the pressure on for the individual to publish.
But that’s just one way it could work. What say you Readers? Any other ways to support career bench scientists? Where are the pitfalls?

No Responses Yet to “Are Stable Research Career Tracks the Solution to "Structural Disequilibria" in the NIH Racket?”

  1. Lab Lemming Says:

    “The fact of the matter is that many, many Ph.D. wielding individuals are in the process of serving out such a career. The trouble is that it is not a stable, formal job category.”
    Um, aren’t 90% of private sector jobs this sort of position? Why shouldn’t folks who like this sort of work simply look there for employment.
    I do agree, however, that funding agencies seem to have a habit of funding hardware without putting up money for support.


  2. DrugMonkey Says:

    Um, aren’t 90% of private sector jobs this sort of position? Why shouldn’t folks who like this sort of work simply look there for employment.
    They do, as I mentioned. Not all do so completely willingly and would much prefer to remain in an academic setting. That’s from the personal side.
    From the enterprise-of-academic-science side, we’re losing that talent. You can argue that this is ok, that such talent is replaceable, and that a constant stream of newbie trainees makes up for bleed-off. I don’t agree that we have the optimal balance at present.
    The Teitelbaum argument seems to be that this up-or-out structure is contributing to the larger cyclic problems with respect to funding. As I said, I’ll need some convincing on that. If if smooths out oscillations in the labor pool, that seems an arguable point.


  3. juniorprof Says:

    PP made the comment over at writedit that “So long as NIH continues to be funded by an annual appropriations process, none of this happy horseshit is ever going to happen.” After letting that sink in for a few days I have to say that I agree and that your present proposal (as much as I like it) is simply not feasible within the current process. I would very much like to see such a career-track become a reality but I think it will require institutional and not NIH implementation. No, as of now I have no proposal for how to get institutions to do that, but I’m thinking about it.


  4. PhysioProf Says:

    As things are currently constituted–with non-PI scientist salaries 100% supported by NIH research grants–there is a massive incentive to get rid of research scientists with relatively high salaries and replace them with entry-level post-docs. This powerful incentive is reinforced by the fact that the former are superannuated post-docs who have come to the realization that they are not going to become PIs, and thus have a strong tendency to become clock-punchers, while the latter have the ambition to become PIs and, frequently, the corollary enthusiasm and intensity.


  5. DrugMonkey Says:

    Are you making the argument that the system only works by exploiting the hopes and dreams of the young and naive? Yowsa. Could be true but still…
    the former are superannuated post-docs who have come to the realization that they are not going to become PIs, and thus have a strong tendency to become clock-punchers,
    Perhaps because the ones with any gumption are the ones that have bled off into private industry?


  6. juniorprof Says:

    Perhaps because the ones with any gumption are the ones that have bled off into private industry?
    After they learned how to write.


  7. DrugMonkey Says:

    After they learned how to write.
    Man, if you are talking about that PIs-hatin-on-dumbass-trainees thread going on at doubledoc’s place I am not touching that action with a 10 footer. YFS will send her minions after me again!!


  8. PhysioProf Says:

    What I am saying is that all of the financial incentives of the system right now force PIs to get rid of expensive research scientists and replace them with dramatically cheaper entry-level post-docs. I have not made any assertion at all about the propriety of this situation.


  9. juniorprof Says:

    That would be what I am talking about. For the record, not being able to write does not make one a dumb-ass-trainee; however, it does eventually allow questions to creep into one’s mind. I am continuously befuddled by the lack of even basic writing skills evidenced by people that spend a good deal of time with the scientific literature.
    There was a point to that comment. Your proposal would require said bench scientist to sit down and write a grant for one of these awards. Many of these people (most, in my experience) have lost the PI ambition precisely because they don’t want the hassle of having to write grants all the time. Isn’t there some expectation here based on a premise that this group of scientists would be likely to avoid (and therefore just another chance for those that write grants prolifically to get richer by ghost authoring such grants)?


  10. DrugMonkey Says:

    Many of these people (most, in my experience) have lost the PI ambition precisely because they don’t want the hassle of having to write grants all the time.
    True. A bit of a flaw in my proposal. Still, if it were just the one grant every five years it’s better than trying to survive as a PI isn’t it?
    just another chance for those that write grants prolifically to get richer by ghost authoring such grants
    I think there would have to be a big distinction between a traditional postdoctoral fellowship and my proposed solution. There would have to be a way to keep a quasi-independent life to the grant. Actually this would be one of the side benefits if the person could relatively easily switch labs, even if the next place was working on something entirely different. (….bringing up the question of how the IC-funded thing would work…yeah).


  11. juniorprof Says:

    bringing up the question of how the IC-funded thing would work…yeah
    And in fairness to you this is an important issue that not many discuss regularly. Livelyhoods are at stake and we should have some interest in seeing this valuable group of scientific contributors be able to find better career stability.
    In my Dept we have put in place a sort of quasi-NIH/industry-plan to maintain stability for people in the situation you describe. Their salaries are funded largely by industry support (with some fluctuation depending on NIH grant funds). It allows us to maintain control over the day to day and year to year consistency of very tedious experiments which are a valuable resource for us and a valuable resource for drug development industry projects. On the other hand, I am rapidly learning that with all the industry upheaval it is HARD work maintaining these funding lines. Moreover, the PIs that put all this into place spent years getting to the point we are at now. I imagine that those that have their salaries taken care of through these channels would be shocked to know what a crazy process it can be (especially at this moment). I’m sure it is also very sub-field specific and I just happen to be in one of those sub-fields that has had continuous high level industry visibility.


  12. Becca Says:

    Yes Virgina, the system really does depend on cheap, energetic trainee labor. We don’t try to dash their hopes and dreams along the way (at least, most folks don’t), but it plays out that way.
    It would be nice to do something about that, and I very much like the idea, but I don’t see it as a transformative solution. Particularly if PP’s attitude is widespread.
    From a cost-benefit perspective, most PIs don’t see the advantages of having a senior level researcher around semi-permanantly. For one thing, it’s often difficult to strike a healthy symbiosis for an extended period of time.
    Also, since PP employed the word “superannuated” I think it’s clear that there is a more fundamental psychological barrier to the creation of these kinds of positions. PP has a truly patronizing attitude toward those who don’t want to be PIs (at a sufficiently prestigious university?). While I understand snobism is all he’s got to compensate for his *ahem* “shoe-size”, and the knowledge that physicians all around him are making more money than he is (and get more respect from Joe-on-the-street), it still gets stale really fast.
    @ Lablemming- my understanding (from a very skewed selection of people who come to my institution’s career day), is that most people who stay in science with a PhD end up doing a job that is largely managerial. If you go into industry, you might have to be a scientist before you can move up the ladder. There were many PhDs who had graduated in the last 5 years who were doing science. That said, I met almost no one who had graudated more than 10 years ago who was still doing bench work or even analyzing much data. Up or out seems to apply to industry too.
    @ juniorprof- I love to write, although I find grant writing very stressful. I might be able to survive the high stress that would acompany writing grants for my salary. I doubt whether I would be a good PI if I had to simultaneously deal with the extra stress of obtaining all the salaries for various lab personale and the stress of managing those people.
    Although I have my doubts about DM’s proposal, the career path he described is desirable to at least some of us. Though who knows, perhaps by the time I get to that stage, I will not see management duties as so onerous.


  13. juniorprof Says:

    Becca, I think you might be assigning an attitude (or whatever) to PP that he does not hold. He’s simply stating the facts of the financial system that currently exists. Once you start having a budget for your lab and expense reports to pour over you can see quite clearly where these sort of pressures come from. Those pressures have no moral value, they are simply matters of cost-benefit and budget management.


  14. juniorprof Says:

    BTW, I would be doing a disservice to my own survival in this industry if I was unable to recognize that he is fundamentally correct.


  15. PhysioProf Says:

    Particularly if PP’s attitude is widespread.

    The only “attitude” I have adopted in my comments to this thread is one of being truthful with myself and others about the nature of reality. If reality sucks, don’t fucking blame me. Write your fucking member of Congress. And that’s not a joke: they are the only ones who have the power to change this shit.


  16. whimple Says:

    My Dean would love DM’s idea. He could hire as many people as the NIH will pay freight for (recall that 80% of all direct costs currently go to salaries), and then if (when) they can’t get their external salary support renewed, he can fire them. Explain again about the increased job stability in having to win external grants to cover your own salary?


  17. I’ve looked at the K05 mechanism as I’ve transitioned in my “mid-career” responsibilities. Most of the very few folks I know who have this award are not post-postdocs but rather people who assumed heavy teaching and/or admin responsibilities early in their academic careers who want to revisit their research and research mentoring by using the K05 as relief from those other tasks.
    I’d propose that NIH come up with another funding mechanism for those post-postdocs who don’t want to be academic PIs but want to stay at the bench. Unfortunately, too many PhDs might view such a position as simply a supertech and many PIs would say they could get more effort with less expenditure by hiring a fresh new postdoc. As PP says, I hate that this is reality but this is where we are with the “overtraining” issue (no, I am not a member of the establishment who wants to keep the establishment running to benefit me – the establishment has burned my shorts and I’d love to be part of any solution).
    I have seen the post-postdoc model work in rare cases where very good scientists support the labs of very high-level MD researchers. Yes, I hear the groans. But in truth, one can have a very satisfying career being a research professor in the right clinical division with an active basic science program. Rare, but possible.
    Lastly, let’s get back to non-academic positions that I refuse to call alternative careers. Just as engineers, lawyers, and MBAs work in a variety of environments, we have to realize that the market may not allow us to work in the environment of our choice. As a result, we biomedical PhDs may need to look at careers in medical writing, brokerage firms, CROs, etc. as viable options to the ‘structural disequilibria.’


  18. neurolover Says:

    How about Hughes funding such positions? I think that would actually do more for the stability of the scientific enterprise than their current young investigator plan, which peaks out at offering the lucky awardees 300K in lab funds in their 5th year (+ salary support). Clearly a huge huge help in getting your lab established. But, also, non-renewable. So, in 5 years, the “young investigators” will then have to come up with 2 concurrent NIH grants to sustain the program they’ve built (and presumably have to have produced to the level that they can do that).
    And, I don’t think they’re meaning to set up a tournament encouraging people to go for the gold, and then letting only a few succeed. I think they’re imagining they’re creating a protected environment where ideas can thrive without nickel and dime pressures. That’s an impression based on the press about Janelia Farms, which really did grow out of that kind of sentimentality for the olden days in science, when the Hughes folks imagine bright people got to think (like at Princeton’s center or the old days of Bell Labs).
    But, my prediction is that they are setting up a tournament, and contributing to the boom/bust and contributing to the big lab syndrome. I still can’t figure out whether those things are bad for science, but their certainly bad for the majority of scientists.


  19. Nat Blair Says:

    I think that a recognized pathway (whatever that means in practice) for longer term post-docs to remain in academic science sounds like a great idea. Sure, there are concerns about whether these post-docs are more likely to be dead weight, non-“go getter” types, but if there is an evaluation mechanism combined with decent duration but non permanent status, you can at least prevent the ossification of those types (assuming it was truly likely to happen).
    Also, the supposed reduction in motivation need to be balanced against the increased efficiency brought by more experience, as well as the maintenance of institutional memory that a longer continuous presence in a lab would provide.
    This is something I would even consider doing. I still love the actual doing of experiments, and the prospect of leaving that (either for some unlikely hypothetical PIdom or an pharma/biotech position) is, well, kinda sad to me.


  20. Bahrad Says:

    I don’t understand how this is supposed to be funded. If you think of someone in a permanent position, you’re talking about salary + about 15% in benefits (not counting any institutional overhead)… that is enough to pay off any student loans, mortgage, etc. A senior BS/MS tech, you could maybe get away with $50-60K. So either the PhD gets that, or they get more (especially with postdocs, etc. the expectation *would* be more), and that’s approaching $90-100K (including benefits and payroll costs, etc.). The only way this works is if the # of NIH-funded labs drops – DRAMATICALLY – or else the number of such positions available is so low that you’re basically talking about the soft-money “research scientist” positions that big labs have *anyway*. There is only one way this makes sense – the drug companies give up R&D completely (and they’re on their way) and so we decide that academia will implement a federally-supported (with matching funds from industry consortia? this model is starting to emerge in genomics) drug discovery enterprise and these “research track” people are essentially playing the role of people who worked in the private sector before, and make similar salaries. Now that’s an interesting idea…


  21. bsci Says:

    Reading through the post and comments here, it’s seems that the argument is being framed (can I use that word here?) in terms of finding places for good researchers who don’t make it to PI to stay in academia. Those people are sometimes ranked as not good enough and having few skills beyond a typical postdoc.
    For example there’s PhysioProfs comment #4
    … by the fact that the former are superannuated post-docs who have come to the realization that they are not going to become PIs, and thus have a strong tendency to become clock-punchers, while the latter have the ambition to become PIs and, frequently, the corollary enthusiasm and intensity.
    This view needs to change. First there are many reasons someone might not want to become a PI. For example, someone could value working in the same city as a spouse higher than PI-hood.
    Also, there needs to be a better understanding of the benefits of these positions as opposed to postdocs. The most valuable thing staff scientists provide to a lab or a department is long term stability. A PI might know the literature and were to look for grant money, but as DM and PP often say, it’s not their job to know how to personally run every test. THis knowledge is often passed from trainee to trainee and gaps do enter (and training new people is faster when it’s someone’s job to help train rather than a way of precious grad student/postdoc time). Having someone stable with this type of position increases productivity and is worth the money.
    People in staff positions are more often able to do extremely important research on technology uses and assumptions that are often less glamourous and flashry for directly getting grants and PI positions. In my own subfield, the 3-4 most popular software packages have multiple staff scientists working on them (only one is in the US). This is not a coincidence.
    As for funding, I think this goes beyond looking to the NIH for grants. Grants are part of the solution, but won’t really work unless a huge % of NIH money is shifted aside for this purpose. Universities needs to also structurally change to better fit these positions into their income stream. For example, most university have very distinct classes of people. There are PIs who run research labs and teach, lecturers who teach and have minimal opportunities for research, and lab techs with almost no teaching options. If people are hiring highly qualified researchers in staff positions, why can’t they teach more and get paid for it? This does happen, but positions where someone is hired to teach 3 classes a year and work in a staff research position are rare or nonexistent.
    I could probably keep writing since this is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, but this comment is long enough already.


  22. JSinger Says:

    From the enterprise-of-academic-science side, we’re losing that talent. You can argue that this is ok, that such talent is replaceable, and that a constant stream of newbie trainees makes up for bleed-off.
    In general, Teitelbaum’s point is one of my main hobbyhorses. (IIRC, this is the topic on which I first arrived at DM’s old site.) In fairness, though, I’d note that the current system is in fact extremely effective at extracting maximum productivity out of some very smart people at very little cost, for a decade and a half or so. PhysioProf credits “enthusiasm and intensity”; I’d add desperation to the list but the point remains.
    As for whether the current system drives away talent — I suppose I’m as entitled to invoke hypothetical losses of talent over my pet grievance as the Broken Pipeline!!! people are for theirs. But my concern is mostly to decrease miserableness for the people in the field, even if a slight loss of productivity does result. I have schemes to make that up elsewhere.
    So long as NIH continues to be funded by an annual appropriations process, none of this [posting from work] is ever going to happen.
    I don’t see why that should be. Everything in government works that way, and you don’t have a Gathering Storm!!! situation in the DMV, or in government science for that matter. (Or even within NIH, to nearly the same extent as in extramural research.) That’s Teitelbaum’s point, that the research system creates boom-bust cycles that need to be fixed with uneven jumps in annual appropriations. If the career ladder were stabilized, annual variation in funding wouldn’t be nearly as much of an issue.


  23. bahrad Says:

    Where is the money coming from for this? Now I’m seeing some people suggest universities, but the reality is that you are talking about university’s basically doing this for, I don’t know, “society’s benefit”? The post-doc’s benefit? I’m not entirely sure. Almost no university actually pays anyone outside of junior people (as part of startup packages) to do research – any salary is for teaching or service (I suppose endowed chairs are exceptions, but they are often tied to philanthropy or are designed to kickstart major research programs by recruiting people who are expected to bring in far more funding than the university can bring in). Now, if you can get industry or patient groups or government to see this is adding value to them (in the various ways they assess value – R&D, developing drugs, boosting the economy) and they put up the money for this, then that’s something else. The motivation has to be tied to some kind of payoff, and not one that’s vague like “it would deal help recruit people” or “reduce misery”.


  24. bsci Says:

    As I mentioned in my overly long comment. Teaching+staff scientist positions could be very viable and make financial sense. In addition, people who increase the efficiency of research and increase the quality of research also increase the ability to get grant funding. It’s hard to calculate how much money a single person will add, but more positions than currently exist could be made in a cost effective manner.


  25. another female post-doc Says:

    I completely agree with the need of such positions. I am senior enough post-doc to have my own ideas for doing research, and i think i am good and productive in my sub-sub field of science. Still because of young children, I don’t want to take up pressure of being PI right now at least for next 2-3 years and also, don’t want to continue as cheap post-doc with my level of experience, so such position will really be great for someone like me. I am moving out exactly because there is no opportunity like this for me.


  26. JSinger Says:

    The motivation has to be tied to some kind of payoff, and not one that’s vague like “it would deal help recruit people” or “reduce misery”.
    Like I said, I don’t dispute that the current system is very cost-effective, and wouldn’t even raise the “vast untapped reservoir of talent” argument if everyone else didn’t use it with even less evidentiary basis.
    It’s worth reminding that the career ladder issue is only one of Teitelbaum’s suggestions, and others he mentions (not encouraging debt-funded construction, not giving NIH any more large increases) are a lot easier to put into place. If nothing else, I’m relieved to see Science publishing an explanation of why creating more new faculty creates still more new faculty, and not another essay from Zerhouni expressing total befuddlement as to how that happened.


  27. DrugMonkey Says:

    wouldn’t even raise the “vast untapped reservoir of talent” argument if everyone else didn’t use it with even less evidentiary basis.
    There is considerably more evidence for the vast reservoir argument in this case than there is in typical applications to underrepresented populations. In this case we are gating on the population of people who were/are postdocs for an appreciable period of time. To some extent the fact that they were successful postdocs is definitional.
    The question of whether some of these people would be effective as career bench scientists can be assessed by virtue of those who manage to eke out a lengthy career. True, I’ve not seen hard statistics on this. But from the anecdotes of the number of labs or scientists with which I am familiar, either I have been around a very strange subset (this cuts across biofields, I will note) of laboratories or the principles generalize nicely.


  28. bahrad Says:

    bsci – ultimately, this is the problem: “It’s hard to calculate how much money a single person will add”… this would have to be quantified. And there are positions at almost any university that include teaching + research but are not tenure-line – usually this would be a “research” or “adjunct” faculty position in which part of the salary is covered for lecturing while the rest is covered by the research group. So obviously, creating these positions isn’t the problem – they already exist. The problem comes back to funding. As for the other issues in the article (boom-bust, over-construction) – this still goes back to “what is good for the PIs and the workforce” versus “what is good for research” or better “what is good for the economy”. Or maybe “what appears to be good for the economy”. Universities funding construction projects with debt generates jobs and economic benefits. Having PhDs who can go into the biotech industry *appears* good for the economy (though of course, is the training really appropriate, etc.?). Making the argument that miserable post-docs and faculty not being able to get funding mean that the best and brightest choose other careers over science WILL NOT WORK, at least not for like 20 or 30 years, maybe, if the experience in Physics fields has anything to show.


  29. Becca Says:

    bcsi- I think you’ve articulated what’s bothersome about PP’s attitude more clearly than I have.
    Cost-benefit analysis is not offensive. Although, for the record, I’m not sure PP is correct in his finacial cost-benefit analysis- I think most PIs are so aclimated to it that they aren’t as horrified by the wastes resulting from lack of lab memory as I am.
    Juniorprof- describing all postdocs that don’t become PIs in some amount of time as “superannuated” is basically treating scientists like horses. Too old to run as fast as you used to? Time to put you out to pasture. Or shoot you, and make you into dogfood. [tounge-in-cheek] The difference between going out to pasture and being shot depends whether PhDs leaving academic science go into industry or become MBAs. [/tounge-in-cheek]
    PPs attitude isn’t based on the “facts” or a cost benefit analysis- it’s based on the simplistic notions that if you aren’t a PI, it’s because you couldn’t hack it. It’s predicated on the assumption that being a PI should automatically be the ambition of the best and the brightest. I don’t think this is attitude is healthy for PP as an individual, or scientific culture more broadly.
    To summarize: scratching your head and saying “but a postpostdoc would cost a lot more, is it really worth it?” is fine with me. Holding your nose and saying “ewww, moldy post-postdocs that can’t cut it as PIs are yucky” is not ok by me.


  30. juniorprof Says:

    When salaries go up by year for postdocs and R01 budgets simultaneously get slashed every year there is no other way to look at the problem. A lab can’t print money. Write your congress people and tell them to do something about it!! NIH employees cannot lobby congress to make changes to NIH. Only we can affect change in these areas.


  31. bsci Says:

    adjust/research faculty are different from I am talking about. At the core of those positions is still the running of ones completely independent research program, often with people working under you. It seems that some of the discussion here is for support/research positions where you might have some or many direct research responsibilities to a PI (like a grad student or postdoc) but have some freedom of research direction (perhaps depending on a new class of grants) and can get some income through teaching.
    I’ve seen some of these positions as special cases, but not as a standard part of the system.
    As for the economic benefits, I think hiring qualified people to positions where they personally think they can maximize their contributions is best. Putting a qualified person who love the academic work-flow and is good at in a company position they don’t like is not good for anyone (and visa versa). These are hard things to fully quantify, but there’s no reason to assume the current system is optimal. I’d also be a bit cautious in comparing this to physics. The Physics budgets were heavily tied to the military and Cold War and I think they dropped more rapidly than the current biomed budget. In addition, a huge portion of the physics PhD private section also lived directly off of government funds (and still does). Biomed has a large number of profitable career options even without direct government funding so it is a bit more stable.


  32. neurolover Says:

    I do agree with those who are saying that a generic argument that the “best” people won’t choose research careers because people are so disheartened just won’t work as a wedge for changing the current policies (which work for some, and may work for “Science”). First, as with physics, this is an international game. A big part of what keeps this trainee/tournament model going is the availability of people in other countries who have fewer options available to them for entering the American work force. Second, it’s really not a bad deal to get to do what you love for 10 years, and get paid for it, and there are plenty of people (especially if we include the whole world) who really do love what they’ve had a chance to do.
    But, I do think the NIH has a few things they could do to fix some incentives for chewing people up (if they really wanted to), other than just wringing their hands about it. My main reason for doing so (other than a concern for the people who get chewed up, which is not an economic incentive) is that I think that the tournament model + disconnected PI’s is a recipe for scientific fraud. I think a senior scientist in a lab (with more direct contact, and direct knowledge) works as a policing mechanism. Some PI’s manage to do this well anyway; others have such people in their lab already (senior post-docs who just stick around, or research faculty, . . .).
    I also think that trainees should simply not be funded off of non-trainee grants as researchers. This is under the NIH’s control, and disconnecting the training funding and the research funding would change some of the incentives in all of this, which tend to encourage us to keep trainees in the tournament when they shouldn’t be. I’d fund graduate students, and post-doctoral trainees with training grants + NRSAs. Individuals who are paid off of NIH grants would have to be research scientists, and they would be seen as a part of the research enterprise. And, I’d limit the proportion of salary that a faculty member can support off federal grants to something like 80%. Universities would then have to make a commitment in order hire them. These are all solutions completely under NIH’s control.
    I think it’s legitimate for us to decide we don’t care about the career tracks of students who enter the system, but I hate people saying they pretend to care but still incentivising everyone to behave badly.


  33. neurolover Says:

    I hadn’t read the Teitelbaum article. And I should have, clearly, since I was plagiarizing him without knowing it. So, to return to Teitebaum (who I have always loved). Sloan always does interesting experiments in navigating science careers.
    So, what about his suggestions? Do we oppose them? They are all suggestions that can be implemented directly from NIH. Are we going to continue to lobby our congress people for “more more more”? Or are we (personally, and by that I mean the people who are writing comments on this forum) going to try to incentive the system differently? What are DM & PP writing their congress people for? I think I may well forward Teitelbaum’s suggestions to my congress people.
    I like every one of TB’s suggestions, and see them as being more likely than a request for 6+% increases in a time of fiscal chaos.


  34. DrugMonkey Says:

    another female post-doc @#25: I am moving out exactly because there is no opportunity like this for me.
    In terms of individual solutions, I will note that sometimes one can create one’s own staff scientist position where none previously existed. One has to be in a lab of appropriate size of course. The point is to show the PI who doesn’t currently have a staff scientist why she now needs one, why you are the right one, how you will be supported and the fact that your University policies (unwritten in some cases) do in fact permit it.


  35. JSinger Says:

    When salaries go up by year for postdocs and R01 budgets simultaneously get slashed every year there is no other way to look at the problem. A lab can’t print money. Write your congress people and tell them to do something about it!!
    I think you’re missing Becca’s point anyway, but I agree with neurolover: before we “tell them to do something about it”, don’t we need to decide what it is we want them to do? Particularly when the negative impact of getting too much money too quickly has just been demonstrated so clearly?
    As for the other issues in the article (boom-bust, over-construction) – this still goes back to “what is good for the PIs and the workforce” versus “what is good for research” or better “what is good for the economy”.
    I share your sensibility, and would like to see science policy driven more that way (at least in cases where appeals to the bottom-line are being used as a justification). But you make it sound like the status quo arose from any sort of similar bottom-line analysis, which is absolutely not the case. Do we have 50% as many C. elegans researchers as we “need”? 100%? 200%? Who has any idea?


  36. DSKS Says:

    “Many of these people (most, in my experience) have lost the PI ambition precisely because they don’t want the hassle of having to write grants all the time.”
    I don’t think this is necessarily about postdocs who simply don’t want to be PIs period. I think we’re talking about postdocs that don’t want to be PIs yet. In the same way that a staff scientist might not want to be running an entire research program immediately, but would prefer a career ladder in place that allowed for a more steady transition of responsibilities.
    The career transition gradient just needs to be a little less steep in academia. The current career model is, as far as I know, not to be seen anywhere in the private sector, and I think there’s a good reason for that: it can’t be terribly efficient in terms of getting the most out of an invariably diverse workforce by cramming them all into two simple categories. In this instance trainee or PI. I think the question of whether the current model constitutes a sensible and efficient use of public funds is a good one. We don’t know for sure either way, but intuitively it does feel a bit wrong.
    That said, a postdoc who doesn’t want to write grants is going to be of limited use to a PI in the model that Drugmonkey is proposing, IMHO. Postdocs are in a prime position to contribute specific aims and act as valuable consultants to the PI on matters of funding &c. I can’t understand how a postdoc could claim to be interested and passionate about research, and yet exercise no motivation to express those interests in writing with the view to being able to pursue them further.


  37. neurolover Says:

    “I don’t think this is necessarily about postdocs who simply don’t want to be PIs period. I think we’re talking about postdocs that don’t want to be PIs yet. In the same way that a staff scientist might not want to be running an entire research program immediately, but would prefer a career ladder in place that allowed for a more steady transition of responsibilities.”
    I disagree with this — the post-doc was supposed to be the training/transition period for people who were going to be PIs, but now are we actually talking about it being something else, and suggesting another stepping stone to the PI path?
    I think we’re really talking about post-docs who don’t want to be PIs, who don’t want to supervise a large program, be primarily responsible for developing funding for their own laboratories, traveling extensively to promote their research, but instead, want to do the bench work (and might be good at it), develop the tools, . . . without being considered trainees. I don’t know how we prevent the volatility (actually I do know; we can’t, as long as we have a free market system of grants for funding science ideas). But, we can drop the fiction that such people are in a training/transition step to something else, and just pay them/evaluate them for their value.


  38. bahrad Says:

    bsci, – not to go toe for toe (or tit for tat), I do want to emphasize these points a little more clearly. First off, there have always been a lot of non-academic roles for physics PhDs – relative to the number that are produced. Of course the sizes are different, but the problem is the same – massive overproduction due to all the factors we’ve talked about, followed by a steady-state (and contraction in some areas). I think the lessons really are relevant. (I’ll give you one more analogy – large private sector R&D operations in physics, i.e., Bell Labs, Xerox, etc. cutting back, similar to what we’re seeing with big pharma shedding large-scale R&D.) Anyway, that’s the subject for another analysis.
    Also, non-tenured “research-track” faculty do NOT typically act as PIs… some do, but those are people who were so awful as teachers they couldn’t make tenure (or else the dean didn’t like them or whatever) but they had grants and for whatever reason didn’t want to move. Most research faculty work as project scientists and engineers, usually for larger grants or centers that have multiple grants. This is very common in engineering departments and in physics. Also, these people are precisely the people who staff service cores!! At most universities, these positions qualify for benefits, 401k/403b, and at an increasing number there’s a promotion track and even some guarantees for bridge salaries if grants run out depending on seniority.
    So the question is not generating these positions. These positions exist, but they make economic sense for large-scale science, shared facilities, etc. If you want more of these positions, then you need to bias funding towards large-scale science or industry/academic partnerships. Extending the K05, creating fellowships… I don’t understand what this is other than saying instead of adding $90K to my lab’s funding, I’m going to have my staff member write a grant to support his salary to, uh, do research in my lab. But isn’t that equivalent to writing grants for $90K of funding to cover salary costs? How does this change anything?


  39. DSKS Says:

    Yeah, I certainly wouldn’t argue that a 6 yr postdoc needs a further bridge into PI-dom. I’m thinking more the 2-3rd years postdoc, who perhaps would prefer a little more time to build up some of those peripheral skill sets (beyond the bench stuff) required of a PI. Personal skills, budget management &c. Stuff that is often overlooked during those initial years of learning techniques, generating data &c.
    Reading the comments, I see some merit to the perception of some that maybe this is just an issue of imposing a new nomenclature on a structure that has already evolved to represent something similar to what DrugMonkey is proposing Maybe the solution is really as cosmetic as replacing the word “postdoc” with “staff scientist”.
    Although “staff scientist” sounds so corporate. Maybe something like Ronin Bench Ninja with appropriate belts and dans for different levels of seniority?


  40. juniorprof Says:

    What are DM & PP writing their congress people for?
    I have written to them (US Congress) for the following issues:
    1) Lay out another long-term plan to stabilize NIH funding to increase in advance of estimated inflation over the next ten years.
    2) Provide NIH funded NRSA fellowship postdocs with the same health insurance and retirement packages that other government employees receive. Do this in addition to increases in NIH funding (in other words, this will be expensive and would mandate further increases). It is only fair since these are supposed to be the best of the best (although I think all postdocs should get such benefits) and they deserve to be able to begin to build their retirement portfolios at a reasonable age.
    3) Urge NIH to make a strong commitment to new investigators (same thing I wrote to NIH in all the calls for input — cannot hurt to bark up all the trees).
    I have also written to my state legislature on the following:
    1) Provide retirement benefits to PhD students that receive stipends from state universities through the state university retirement plan.
    2) Urge greater institutional support for research track positions (this actually appears to be happening).
    3) Increase funding for the state research foundation.
    4) Make tuition free for all in-state students (this also appears to be happening).
    I have yet to get a response other than thanks for your letter. However, as noted above, some of these things seem to actually be happening, mostly on the state level. We are lucky to have a governor with a good deal of foresight and a great deal of pride in the science that comes out of this state.


  41. neurlover Says:

    I’m afraid your list fits into my more/more/more category. 1-2 are simple requests for more funding. #3 might not be — if you see the support of new investigators coming from support for established investigators, but I suspect that’s not what you want.
    I think it’s interesting that you see your state making some of the right steps. cool. I’m particularly intrigued that your state (Arizona, right?) is managing to increase support for research track positions & eliminating tuition for in state residents. My state is probably decreasing support for research track positions (though I’m not sure about this) and increasing tuition for in state residents.
    I actually agree with every one of Teitelbaum’s suggestions, and will see if I can figure out a way to send those to my favorite congress people.


  42. Becca Says:

    Yeah, Juniorprof, I’m totally with you on the “make the pie bigger” strategy of contacting our representatives. I also think my main congresscritter (Arlen Spector) is probably more than bright enough to understand why the “feast/famine” cycle is bad.
    I think you might have missed what I’ve been taking PP to task for. I might be wrong about his attitude- his generic approach tends toward the patronizing side, so it’s hard to tell if he’s being especially nasty toward senior post-docs. In any event, there are people who think nasty small-minded thoughts about people who aren’t PIs, and it does not serve research well. It also represents an obstacle to implementing DMs suggestions effectively (not that money isn’t an obstacle too).
    @DSKS- I could imagine in the position you describe after a couple of years of postdocing. I also think it would be wise if people were involved in specific mangerial training in this phase of their careers.
    I notice the K05s specifically include mentoring- I think grant mechanism like DM is suggesting should too. Do faculty search committees already look for applicants that have had senior authorships? Are there ways other than grant applications to set up career incentives for taking on scientific leadership outside a professorial role?
    I see nothing wrong with staff scientist- although I think a good belt system would be so much cooler. Bench Ninjas indeed!


  43. juniorprof Says:

    Well neurolover, I’m a more more more kind of guy. I like to think that I lived outside the US for long enough to understand just how eager many nations are to pass us right on by on the research and development front. Many of them are perfectly capable of doing it and they are perfectly capable of creating the first episode of US brain drain. I don’t want to see that happen and I try to make it clear that I believe that that can be the ultimate consequence of a continued contraction of R&D funding on the federal level.
    And, AZ is right. Lots of interesting things happening here in terms of higher education. Unbeknownst to me prior to moving here the state has traditionally lagged far behind in terms of higher education despite having two fine state institutions. There is considerable momentum in place to change that and the current Mars mission has really captured the imagination of the population (at least in this second biggest city in the state).


  44. neurolover Says:

    ut the whole point of Teitelbaum’s article was that simply making the pie bigger (the “doubling”) does not end, and perhaps actually contributes to the feast/famine cycle.
    Perhaps feast/famine isn’t a bad thing for “Science” We could see the feast as a time of progress, followed by fat trimming when the money gets scarce (of course, we think we’re trimming the meat, too, but that’s an unavoidable consequence).
    If we’re accepting feast/famine, though, NIH funding is great and all that but the US is definitely in a famine right now. We’re in the midst of a war, unemployment just spiked at 5.7%, and our federal budget deficit has reached an all time high. I love science, and think that it is the driving force behind much of what is good in society. But, a bigger NIH pie has to come at the consequence of something else — ending the war will be a step in the right direction, and might bring peace dividends. But, I’ve always found it impossible to argue for NIH’s bigger pie at the expense of anything else the DHHS does.
    I think the money we spend on science is well-spent, but I don’t know where to get the money from, and I think the structural questions can be, and should be, addressed separately from the size of the funding pie.


  45. juniorprof Says:

    Neurolover, Sign me up for an end to the war and more taxes on my income group and a reversal of the Bush tax cuts. I believe that we won’t get out of the rut without a long-term commitment to R&D increases on the federal level. Maybe NIH shouldn’t be the first to get an increase however… if I had my hands on the pursestrings I would likely look heavily to alternative energy first and foremost.


  46. Mad Hatter Says:

    Thanks to neurolover for pointing out this thread!
    Like DM, I’m not convinced that creating stable positions for non-tt PhDs will fix the “structural disequilibria”. But despite the argument that senior and expensive PhD scientists can be replaced by new and cheap trainees (DM @ #2), there are positions in academia that are better filled by senior PhDs than newbie trainees. As bahrad @ #38 points out, most core facilities are run by senior, non-tt PhD scientists and this isn’t a good position for a postdoc. In “traditional” academic labs. these scientists not only provide stability and “lab memory” (bsci @ #21), but they can take on projects that are too preliminary or high-risk for grad students or postdocs–i.e., they function as “incubators” for development of new projects/research areas in a lab.
    With regard to PP’s contention that non-tt PhDs are clock-punchers with no ambition (PP @ #4), I would argue that (1) a senior PhD who enjoys an academic lab environment but prefers to view science as a job rather than a career ladder would be perfectly acceptable in a staff position as a core facility manager, (2) senior PhDs in research faculty positions have to develop research programs and write grants, so the clock-punchers simply won’t succeed in these positions, and (3) the PIs who hire senior PhDs should be perfectly capable of weeding out the incompetent and/or unmotivated–no need to tar the whole lot of us with the same brush.
    And gumption or lack thereof (DM @ #5) doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with whether one goes into industry. Some of us don’t live in, or can move to, places with a lot of companies doing research in our field. For me personally, the thought of having a job testing the efficacy of disinfectants on Microbe X or doing high-throughput plant genotyping (these were pretty much the industry options where I live the last time I looked) makes me want to poke my eye out with a pipette, despite the significantly higher salary.
    As for how to fund such positions, I’m not sure the K-like career grant idea will work. Non-tt faculty like me are eligible to apply for NIH and foundation grants, and there are several non-tt faculty in my department who have R01s. The problem is that when funding is tight, being non-tt becomes a serious handicap. But when funding is tight, the chances that the NIH will set aside money specifically for non-tt PhDs is pretty much nil. And PhDs who choose non-faculty research probably have no interest in writing grants, as Junioprof @ #9 points out.
    So the only option currently available is to find a rich PI and convince him/her that your services are worth your salary. I completely agree with both Abel Pharmboy @ #17 and DM @ #34 that it can be done, and that one can definitely land a “tailor-made” position. Both of my job offers in academia when I decided not to pursue tt positions were from PIs who were not hiring at all at the time, let alone hiring for a senior and expensive PhD scientist.


  47. Bill Says:

    I think the challenge for postdocs who don’t want to be PIs (or who are unable to) is to find a job that will be rewarding yet lucrative. I wonder if teaching isn’t the way to go. No, its not hugely lucrative, but it pays better than a postdoc, you get a pension, and you get the summer off (or an opportunity to moonlight and make more money). And there seems to be a demand for it, especially for people who have advanced science degrees. I don’t know, maybe when this fellowship is over if I still have no job prospects I’ll look into it.


  48. another female post-doc Says:

    I was just thinking last days about all these stuff, and I think the solution could be to limit post-doc positions sponsored by PIs only a couple of years for an individual. if one wants to stay in the field, one should be able to write grant with a host PI in the institute and get at least his/her own salary from the grant. In addition, post-docs should be given to teach at least one course per year, so universities can be responsible for part of the post-doc salary. This way post-doc positions will actually become training for real academic career (not a cheap labor only), and those who don’t want to deal with that will move out. You can say, that this system might be less effective for PIs, as they want to utilize post-docs in their lab until the last drop of the energy post-docs have, but in long run, everyone should benefit from it.


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