UC postdocs get a little help from CongressCritters

June 28, 2010

The University of California has been negotiating with a postdoctoral union over many issues of compensation. Unsurprisingly one of their favorite tactics when dealing with student / transient employee concerns is to delay.
The postdocs have an interesting set of allies, namely George Miller (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) of the House Education and Labor Committee.
Science Careers blog notes:

three Bay area Congressional representatives faxed a letter to Gene Dodaro, acting comptroller general of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Congress’s investigative arm in matters concerning public funds. They ask the agency to look into “how universities, including the University of California, track how funds provided for laboratory research grants are spent.” …UC has cited a purported inability to determine “the costs of proposals to increase the compensation” of postdocs as a reason for negotiating delays, the letter continues. The inexplicable difficulty of one of the world’s great research institution to figure out how much it pays its own employees “raises serious questions” about UC’s–and possibly other universities’–ability to track research funds in general, the letter goes on.

The not-very-veiled implication appears to be that UC might find it less unpleasant to settle with the postdocs than to tangle with the committee. With the next negotiating meeting scheduled for Wednesday, the next installment of the saga may be about to play out.

hahaha. Yeah, I dunno about that. I wonder if Congress can lay a finger on the accountant magickery that disposes of overhead funds.

14 Responses to “UC postdocs get a little help from CongressCritters”

  1. Anon Says:

    Oh, wonderful! I’d love to see a few universities get their rears handed to them.
    Just in case they’re unclear what working conditions are like for post-docs, please send them a copy of this letter: http://www.boingboing.net/2010/06/25/i-have-noticed-that.html


  2. DSKS Says:

    Dude, that letter is old, literally as well as figuratively.


  3. I think the Mu-Ming Poo letter is more entertaining:

    [打印]Moo-Ming Poo’s letter to his lab members and his later response (reshipment)
    Mu-ming Poo is head of the Division of Neurobiology, Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at University of California, Berkeley, California, USA. He is also director of the Institute of Neuroscience, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanghai, China.
    A letter
    To all lab members:
    Over the past several months, it has become clear to me that if there is no drastic change in the lab, Poo lab will soon cease to be a productive, first-rate lab that you chose to join in the first place. Lab progress reports over the past six months have clearly shown the lack of progress in most projects. One year ago, when we first moved to Berkeley, I expressed clearly to everyone my expectation from each one in the lab. The most important thing is what I consider to be sufficient amount of time and effort in the lab work. I mentioned that about 60 hr working time per week is what I consider the minimal time an average successful young scientist in these days has to put into the lab work. There may be a few rare lucky fellows like Florian, who had two Nature papers in his sleeve already, can enjoy life for a while and still get a job offer from Harvard. no one else in the lab has Florian\’s luxury to play around.
    Thus I am imposing strict rules in the lab from now on:
    1. Every one works at least 50 hr a week in the lab (e.g., 8+ hr a day, six days a week). This is by far lower than what I am doing every day and throughout most of my career. You may be smarter or do not want to be as successful, but I am not asking you to match my time in the lab.
    2. By working, I mean real bench work. This does not include surfing on the computer and sending and receiving e-mails for non-scientific matters unrelated to your work (you can do this after work in the lab or at home), and excessive chatting on nonscientific matters. No long lunch break except special occasions. I suggest that everyone puts in at least 6 hr concentrated bench work and 2+ hr reading and other research-related activity each day. Reading papers and books should be done mostly after work. More time can be spent on reading, literature search and writing during working hours when you are ready for writing a paper.
    3. I must be informed in person by e-mail (even in my absence from the lab) when you are absent from the lab for a whole day or more. Inform me early your vacation plan. Taking more than 20 working days out of one year is the maximum to me. In fact, none of you are reporting any vacation and sick leave on your time sheet (against the university rule, although I have been signing the sheets), but you know roughly how many days you were not here. On the whole, I understand and accept the fact that you may not fulfill the above requirements all the time, due to health reasons, occasional personal business. But if you do not like to follow the rules because it is simply a matter of choice of life style, I respect your choice but suggest you start making plans immediately and leave the lab by the end of January 31. I will do my best to help you to locate a lab to transfer or to find a job. If you do accept the conditions I describe above, I am happy to continue to provide my best support to your work, hopefully more than I have done in the past. I will review the progress of everyone in the lab by the end of June of 2002. I expect everyone to have made sufficient progress in the research so that a good paper is in sight (at least to the level of J. Neuroscience). If you cannot meet this goal at that time, I will have to ask you to prepare to leave my lab by the end of August.
    Later response
    CogNeu: You have my permission to post my reply letter to you on the web if you wish to do so.
    MM Poo Letter:
    Dear CogNeu: Thank you for your inquiry on the authenticity of a letter I wrote in 2001 (to my lab members at Berkeley). Yes, I wrote the letter (in English), although the Chinese commentaries and quotes supposedly referring to the letter were often inaccurate interpretation and sometimes outright distortion of the content of the letter. Despite the fact that this was a private letter that should not be posted in the internet and that it was clearly a “politically incorrect” letter, I do not regret that I had written it. In this letter I had stated clear my personal belief (which I still hold) on what a beginning researcher should behave in the laboratory, in order to be competitive in this tough world. In any case, this letter had stimulated some useful discussions.
    An important point I intended to convey is the intensity of efforts required for a begining researcher to achieve success. The exact number of hours one puts into the work each day is not as important as the extent one’s heart and mind are engaged in the research task at hand. The interest and devotion to science are tightly coupled. Few of us are born with intense interest in science. Our interest grows when we are able to enjoy the reward of our research (the joy of finding things out, the feeling of personal accomplishment, and other more practical benefits). Self discipline in devoting one’s effect in the task at hand is important for the beginner, because the resulting success provides the critical positive feedback one needs to embark on a career in science.
    A final note to add. Since the letter was written, many of my lab members at Berkeley did not fulfill my requirements. I have, however, continued to provide my support to them without asking any one to leave my laboratory (although one student did quit volunterily). Some of them had done quite well without abiding to my rules, and others could have done better if they took my advice more seriously. There are now quite a number of people who went through my laboratory as students or postdocs. If you are interested, you can always ask them directly about their expeience in my laboratory.
    best wishes,
    Mu-ming Poo

    At least Poo seems not to be a sociopath, but that Caltech fuck-up is a fucking sicko.


  4. becca Says:

    Wait, doesn’t everyone get letters like this from their PI?


  5. JohnV Says:

    I never got it in writing, Becca. I got called into my PI’s office to be told: “We [the various PIs] don’t think any of you [grad students] are working enough. When we leave at 6 or 7 many times you’ve all left.”
    It was a fun conversation because of this “Well OK [me to my PI], but when I get to work at 8 am every day none of you are here?”
    “Well, if we’re not here we don’t know that you’re working.”
    “Well ok and weekends too I guess?”
    I can only assume the point of that conversation was some sort of pep talk to fire me up and have some positive impact on my research. Surely the goal wasn’t to make my general hatred of life spread to include the PIs of my department.


  6. becca Says:

    My PI is irked with the whole department for not working his hours (8-7 M-F and 9-12 on Saturday), thus making him seem like ‘the bad guy’ when he wants me to work more hours.
    I consider this PI to be a good PI since he’s not telling me to do something he won’t do himself. Also, I frankly prefer the transparency of having it written down, rather than getting the same old BS about “you just need to make progress” (which is fine, when experiments work like they are supposed to, i.e. never for me).
    I still want to smash things (or myself) everytime my PI gets upset I’m not in by 9am (particularly when the roolet wakes me up 3+ times/night).
    JohnV- I think the point of the ‘pep talk’ was twofold:
    1) make sure the PIs felt like they’d done some managing, thus relieving them of some of the stress from not being perfect at the eternally unfinishable task of actually motivating people and helping them over stumbling blocks
    2) reinforce social hierarchy


  7. neurlover Says:

    I think this is an interesting discussion. I also think that Poo’s demands were the expectation (though with variations for field — not all fields can reasonably expect weekend lab work, some require all-nighters, others that you work on the schedule of availability of some shared instrument or another). Roughly, 60 hours a week, mostly on data generation until you have something to say, more on intellectual energy when you don’t.
    Of course, this is the expectation for a student/post-doc who wants to join the tournament for a PI. I think what these lab heads (we have 3 letters now) are facing is the recognition by many of their students that they’re not going to make it in the tournament. Once that happens, they don’t have sufficient leverage to keep those hours for the pay being offered. Then, unfortunately, foreign students, and their limited visas starts to play a significant role. And, that, I do worry about. An American student can leave the tournament at Caltech, Berkeley, or wherever. The foreign student is more ripe for what is real exploitation, and I’ve been on the periphery of some disturbing stories.


  8. neurolover Says:

    Of course, they say “the same old BS about “you just need to make progress”” so that they can’t run afoul of any rules. The occasional unionized student employee must have rules that govern how many hours they can be demanded to work. But no one can prevent you from saying that you just “need to make progress.”


  9. qaz Says:

    Most science does not work this simple way (plug and chug data through some stupid machine). Most science works by innovation, invention, and discovery. Yes, data collection is important, but so is thinking. It may be that these letters (are they not jokes? they look like jokes to me) are addressing a rare case where in fact data collection is the problem. But if not, then they show a remarkable lack of individual training for a student (and that’s the real problem in my book).
    Whimple #8, the reason that graduate programs rate student success by “you just need to make progress” is that it allows flexibility to handle a variety of situations. Yes, it does leave open exploitation by some faculty, but in my experience, this is very rare. Most cases of accused exploitation are due to students not seeing the big picture of a faculty really trying to help them. If science were this easy, it’d be a business, we’d sell results to customers, and we wouldn’t have to dance these grant look-what-we’re-going-to-do/oh-we-did-something-else-but-its-still-important jigs all the time. In my experience, the danger of exploitation is better handled by having an appeals processes and the availability of additional faculty in a department rather than legal rules that trap students and faculty in positions they don’t want to be. (For example, my department requires that the chair of the thesis committee be different from the advisor.)
    As faculty, we need to judge students by progress, not by time-spent. Just as I refuse to count my hours for the university. (Do you count the hours bashing my head on my screen because the data doesn’t make sense or do you count the 10 seconds when I’m walking my kid in the park and figure it all out?) Of course, when progress is weak, it’s hard to know what the problem is or how to fix it. Sometimes, it is a matter of not doing the effort of data collection. But sometimes it is a matter of too much data collection and not enough sitting back to think about the problem. This is why we work by an apprenticeship system and training is done on an individual basis.


  10. whimple Says:

    #8 was my usual whiny tone, but wasn’t in fact me. 🙂


  11. qaz Says:

    Whimple #10 (for real, this time). I apologize. I think I was looking at two different posts. That should have been “neurolover #8…”
    again, sorry ’bout that!


  12. Dr. Feelgood Says:

    Woah, I must be a lousy PI. I let everyone work an 8-ish hour day unless their experiment keeps them there. I like results and progress, but I hate labs with researchers chained to the bench. Hey I am lazy. I try to instill clever laziness in my students. Laziness inspires creativity.


  13. justin Says:

    This guy was [allegation of impropriety regarding a trainee redacted-DM]. Now she’s a professor at Berkeley


  14. Kanela Says:

    I don’t know if your comment is ironic or not. I don’t think it is appropriate and don’t appreciate it.


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