There was a discussion on Twitter regarding postdoctoral compensation that veered off into the assertion that it is “easy” for PIs to give a 20% bump to their postdocs if they wanted to. It eventually incorporated some allegation that particular subspecialties (like computer/informatics jockeys) required a bonus bit of pay above normal for postdocs. Eventually it became clear to me that there are both some postdocs and indeed junior faculty that basically think they are able to just pay their postdocs whatever they want if they happen to have sufficient grant or other money to do so.

In one case I tried gently to raise the spectre of unequal treatment, bias and discrimination in wage compensation. I do this not just because of the general observation that in far too many workplaces women just happen to get paid less. I do this also because I have been around training environments where the direct-experience pain of unequal postdoc pay (“because DewdDoc has a family to support and you, WomanDawk do not”) was made clear to me. While I have not heard of anybody pulling that crap in my current department…let’s just say I’m not the trusting type.

I have tried to adhere to postdoctoral compensation policies that were external to my own (inevitably biased) self in my actions as a lab head. In brief, I have stuck to the NRSA guidelines. At one point that meant that my postdocs were being paid better than the mean in my department. I think we are now all doing better but my sense is that my institution only requires the starting pay to be at NRSA minimum and doesn’t enforce the yearly steps.

I tried the subtle way but it is not, apparently, working.

PhysioProf, growing tired of the shenanigans got shouty.


Head on over to the NIH Grants Policy Statement where it talks about Salaries. Emphasis added for the slower readers.

Allowable. Compensation for personal services covers all amounts, including fringe benefits, paid currently or accrued by the organization for employee services rendered to the grant-supported project. Compensation costs are allowable to the extent that they are reasonable, conform to the established policy of the organization consistently applied regardless of the source of funds, and reasonably reflect the percentage of time actually devoted to the NIH-funded project.

and on “bonuses”, a mechanism used to supplement postdocs that I have heard of.

Allowable as part of a total compensation package, provided such payments are reasonable and are made according to a formally established policy of the grantee that is consistently applied regardless of the source of funds.

The grants policy has this to say about Fraud and Waste:

Examples of fraud, waste, and abuse that should be reported include, but are not limited to, embezzlement, misuse, or misappropriation of grant funds or property, and false statements, whether by organizations or individuals. Other examples include theft of grant funds for personal use; using funds for non-grant-related purposes; theft of federally owned property or property acquired or leased under a grant; charging the Federal government for the services of “ghost” individuals; charging inflated building rental fees for a building owned by the grantee; submitting false financial reports; and submitting false financial data in bids submitted to the grantee (for eventual payment under the grant).

The Federal government may pursue administrative, civil, or criminal action under a variety of statutes relating to fraud and making false statement or claims.

It doesn’t precisely say that overpaying staff outside of what is “reasonable” and that “conform to the established policy of the organization” is the same as “theft for personal use” and they talk about “inflated…fees” only in the context of building rental. But c’mon.

It doesn’t take a neurobrainrocketscientistsurgeon to deduce that an individual NIH-grant-holding PI has some obligation to pay their staff only what is consistent with institutional policies external to their own personal preferences.

I take no position whatever on what institutional postdoc compensation policies should be in various locations in this fair land. Ok, that’s a lie, I think NRSA scale should be a minimum. But if there need to be local adjustments, no problem. If there needs to be institutional recognition that some job types (like a informatics / computational biology postdoc) require a consistent bonus to compete with the local killer-app startup, fine.

But it is VERY clear to me that individual PIs do not just get to willy-nilly decide what to pay their trainees without any reference to what is “reasonable” and what has been made “established policy of the organization”.

Go read comments from Professor Isis-the-scientist today:

Science Has A Thomas Jefferson Problem…

Still, this doesn’t change the fact that the notion that “Science Has a Sexual Assault Problem” makes me salty. Life has a sexual assault problem. 26% of women scientists are assaulted in the field, but about that many women in general report sexual assault. A large portion of the attacks against scientists are perpetrated by someone the victim knew, but many women in general know their attackers. So, at the crux of the stunning and shocking and eye opening is something that I find more insidious – it is the belief that science is somehow different than society at large.

After all, surely rape and assault and violence are acts committed by poor people, and brown folks, NFL players and the occasional misguided frat boy. Certainly our logical, skeptical, professional and enlightened scientific brethren aren’t capable of the type of violence that Hope describes. Surely, tenured white women aren’t at risk for that type of violence.

Pretending that any type of person is “different”, in the good way, is a suboptimal way to go through life.

People are horrible.

Given half a chance:

-Doods will try to rape women
-White cops will shoot innocent teen browns
-Dewds will try to cop a feel.
-Grant and manuscript and career/job reviewers will support candidates that seem most like themselves
-Guys will leer and objectify.
-Postdocs will slack and blame their PI
-Old wrinkly profs will delusionally think one of the young sweet grad student things will come back to their shitty hotel room at scientific meetings if their clumsy overtures are made to enough of them.
-PIs will exploit the hell out of their “trainees”
-Men will rape women.
-Institutions, meaning deanlets, will screw over their Golden Goose Faculty

People are horrible.

Act accordingly.

Most laboratories buy stuff that they need to do their research. It varies. From latex gloves to pipette tips. From mice to bunnies. From cocaine to ABD-xld500BZN….whatever that is. Operant boxes to sequencers. Stuff.

All of these cost money which generally comes from the laboratory budgets. Startup, unattached funds if you have ’em and, for the most part research grants.

Consider this scenario.

We usually get our genotyping done outside of the lab. I mean, I could have this service performed in house by staff but there are many small vendors in my biotech/university/science community that will do it for us.

I met this guy at the bar. Or, maybe I recently ran into an old grad school friend. Some woman I postdoc’d with back in the day. A friend of my spouse. Whomever.

This person is starting up a brand new biotech support company, mom-and-pop kind of thing. This GenesRUs company is happy to take over our genotyping services.

I secure a quote. Wow. Two times the most expensive bottom line I came up with for doing it in-house that convinced me to hit the vendors in the first place. Maybe 3X the price of other locals.

But. But. This person is so nice. And we have a personal connection of some sort. Gee, they are still so small that they will come pick up from us at basically any time we want? And have results back prontissimo?

And you know. I HAVE the grant money. It isn’t going to kill our budget to dump a few extra thousands on this top-cost option every year. Even if it amounts to tens of thousands, hey, it’s just grant money, right?

The question, Dear Reader, is this.

Is it okay for me to use my PI’s prerogative to spend my grant money this way? Just because I want to?