September 26, 2012

Junior scientists who have spent many formative years in GlamourMag pursuing laboratories suffer from the academic equivalent of Stockholm syndrome.

It is really not kind of me to front their illusions all at one go.

The always perspicacious Biochemme Belle noted that Francis Collins, boss of the NIH, is suggesting that they need to take steps to de-stigmatize the idea of alternate careers. I.e., careers outside of the traditional academic, grant funded, professorial-appointed track.

At the NIH, we’re in the middle of analysing whether we have the right quality and quantity of training programmes, so people are well prepared for a satisfying and rewarding career. They don’t all have to become tenure-track scientists and clones of their mentors. We need to stop talking about alternative careers as if they are somehow second rate.

I have noted before that the NIH, if you view it as an entity which pays for a service, is making out like a bandit on loopholes to traditional worker protections. Actually, it isn’t all that different from any other white collar, salary style job loophole but it is still a loophole. The work of the NIH is primarily person-work. Lots of people conducting experiments, analyzing them and writing them up into manuscripts which will eventually be published. It is labor.

Correspondingly the NIH benefits when it can get this labor done for less money than would otherwise be accomplished. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Free enterprise my friends, much beloved of all US politicians.

via this

The way it has done this is to get as much of its labor done by “trainees”. That would be graduate students and postdocs. People who are paid less than what we think of as market rate (as indexed by professorial salaries, scientist salaries in industry and even academic technician salaries) to do the work. The way that these poor suckers are deluded into providing this underpaid service is by sticking a carrot in front of their faces.

The carrot is that of a subsequent job on EasyStreet.

Well, a highly desired job, anyway. Which the trainees are told can only be obtained by working their behinds off (often time at well above standard 40 hr weeks), sacrificing many traditional life goals (like marriage, home ownership, childrearing) and the like. The carrot is tasty, and the working conditions for the trainee are hardly slavery, so the system works.

It should never, ever for one second be missed that the NIH is making out like a bandit from this situation and has every interest in continuing it. Otherwise their money would go nowhere near as far in research productivity. Because their labor force would cost them more if the approximately 75% of PHD students who should really be career techs just started as techs the month after their BS was awarded. It would cost them more if the postdocs who really are best suited for some sort of career staff-scientist, low level project directing type of position* likewise started such a full-benefits, COL adjusting, regular raising job right after the PhD dries.

I think Collins’ comment is consistent with trying to keep a good thing going a little longer.

The heat is on about the carrot. People are talking about how few of the donkeys ever get the carrot and how long they keep plodding away in pursuit of an empty goal. If the suckers trainees don’t believe in the carrot anymore, the scam scheme unplanned exploitation structure will start to collapse.

“Aha!”, thinks** the beast that is the NIH. “All we need to do is put up a carrot and three turnips and the poor fools will think they have better odds of getting something!”.

updated: also see this.
*lest this come off as unduly dismissive from my lofty throne, but for a quirk of fate I very likely would have ended up in such a position and have been reasonably happy about it.

**no, I don’t think any of this is explicit and Machiavellian.