In a piece on HuffPo, NIH Director Francis Collins announces the NIH response to Obama’s new rules on overtime for salaried employees. Collins:

Under the new rule, which was informed by 270,000 public comments, the threshold will be increased to $47,476 effective December 1, 2016. ….In response to the proposed FLSA revisions, NIH will increase the awards for postdoctoral NRSA recipients to levels above the threshold.

“levels”. Meaning, presumably the entire scale will start around $47.5K and move upward with years of postdoctoral experience, as the NRSA scale usually does.

What about the larger population of postdocs that are paid from non-NRSA funds, Dr. Collins?

..we recognize that research institutions that employ postdocs will need to readjust the salaries they pay to postdocs that are supported through other means, including other types of NIH research grants. While supporting the increased salaries will no doubt present financial challenges to NIH and the rest of the U.S. biomedical research enterprise, we plan to work closely with leaders in the postdoc and research communities to find creative solutions to ensure a smooth transition.

Imprecise and highly disappointing when it comes to the postdocs supported on “other types of NIH research grants”. This would have been a great opportunity to state that the NIH expects any postdocs paid from RPGs to be on the NRSA scale, wouldn’t it? Most postdocs are supported on NIH grants. This Rock Talk post shows in FY2009 something like 11,000 basic biomed postdocs on Federal research grants and only 1,000 on Federal fellowships and training grants (and ~7,800 on nonFederal support). So Francis Collins is talking the happy talk about 10% of the postdocs who work for him and throwing 90% into the storm.

The OER head, Michael Lauer, has a few more interesting points on the Open Mike blog.

Institutions that employ postdocs through non-NRSA support can choose how to follow the new rule. They may choose to carefully track their postdocs’ hours and pay overtime. Or, keeping with the fact that biomedical research – as in many professional and scientific careers – does not fit into neatly defined hourly shifts, institutions can choose to raise salaries to the new FLSA salary threshold or above it, if they do not yet pay postdocs at or above that level.

This would imply that Dr. Collins’ supposed plan to “work closely with” and “ensure a smooth transition” is more realistically interpreted as “hey, good luck with the new Obama regs, dudes”.

Before we get at it in the comments, a few lead off points from me:

The current NRSA scale pays 0 year postdocs $43,692 so in December the brand new postdoc will see a $4,000 raise, roughly. There is currently something on the order of $1,800 increases for each successive year of experience, this estimate is close enough for discussion purposes. If this yearly raise interval is maintained we can expect to see that same $4,000 pay rise applied to every salary level. Remember to apply your local benefits rate for the cost to a grant, if you are paying your postdocs at NRSA scale from RPG funds. Could turn this into a $5,000-$6,000 cost to the grant.

Postdocs getting paid more is great. Everyone in science should be paid more but there is something specific here. Postdocs frequently work more than 40 h per week for their salaried positions. This is right down the middle of the intent of Obama’s change for the overtime rules. He is right on this. Period.

With that said, there is a very real disconnect here between the need to pay postdocs more and the business model which funds them. As mentioned above, 90% of Federally funded postdocs are supported by research grants, and 10% on fellowships or traineeships. (A population almost 8 times as large as the latter are supported by nonFederal funds- the percentage of these working on Federal research projects is likely to be substantial.) A grant may have one or two postdocs on it so adding another $5,000-$10,000 per year isn’t trivial. Especially since the research grant budgets are constrained in a number of ways.

First, in time. We propose grants in a maximum of 5 year intervals but often the budget is designed one or two years prior to funding. These grant budgets are not supplemented in the middle of a competitively-awarded interval just because NRSA salary levels are increased. Given the way NRSA rises have been coming down randomly over the years, it is already the case that budgets are stretched. Despite what people seem to think (including at NIH), we PIs do not pad the heck out of our proposed research budgets. We can’t. Our peers would recognize it on review and ding us accordingly.

Second, grants are constrained by the modular budgeting process which limits direct costs to $250,000 per year. This a soft and nebulous limit which depends on the culture of grant design, review and award. Formally speaking, one can choose a traditional budget process at any time if one needs to request funds in excess of $250,000 per year. Practically speaking, a lot of people choose to use the modular budget process. For reasons. The purchasing power has been declining for 15 years and there is no sign of a change in the expectations for per-grant scientific output.

Third, grant budgets are often limited by reductions to the requested budget that are imposed by the NIH. This can be levied upon original funding of the award or upon the award of each of the annual non-competing intervals of funding. These can often range to 10%, for argument’s sake let’s keep that $25,000 figure in mind when assessing the impact of such a reduction on paying a salary for a staff member, such as a postdoc. Point being, it’s a big fraction of a salary. This new postdoc policy isn’t going to result in fewer cuts or shallower cuts. Believe me.

I will be watching the way that local Universities choose to deal with the new policy with curiosity. I think we all see that trying to limit postdocs to 40 h a week of work so as to avoid raising the base salary is a ridiculous plan*. The other competitive motivations will continue to drive some postdocs to work more. This will put Universities (and PIs) in the extremely distasteful position of creating this elaborate fiction about working hours.

One potential upside for the good PI, who is already maintaining postdocs at NRSA levels even when funded from the RPG, is that it will force the bad PIs into line. This should narrow the competitive disadvantage that comes with trying to treat your postdocs well.

Final point. This will take away jobs. Fewer postdocs will be hired. Whether this is good or bad….well, opinions vary. But the math is unmistakable.

[UPDATE: The modular budget grant limit of $250,000 was established for R01s in FY2000 and the NRSA 0 year postdoc salary in FY2000 was $26,916. This is 10.8% of the direct costs of a full modular R01. In FY2017 when this new NRSA adjustment, the 0 year postdoc will be 19% of the direct costs of a full modular R01. In short the postdoc is now 76% more expensive than the postdoc was in FY2000.]
*It is, however, a failed opportunity to attempt to normalize academic science’s working conditions. I see no reason we shouldn’t take a stab at enforcing a 40 h work week in academic science, personally. Particularly for the grad student and post-doc labor force who are realistically not very different from the technicians who do, btw, enjoy most labor protections.