Congress is losing it.

February 27, 2014

Just after we noticed that Congress has seen fit to add a special prohibition on anything done with Federal grant funds that might suggest gun control is in order, there’s another late breaking Congressional mandate notice.

NOT-OD-14-062:

FY 2014 New Legislative Mandate

Restriction of Pornography on Computer Networks (Section 528)
“(a) None of the funds made available in this Act may be used to maintain or establish a computer network unless such network blocks the viewing, downloading, and exchanging of pornography.

(b) Nothing in subsection (a) shall limit the use of funds necessary for any Federal, State, tribal, or local law enforcement agency or any other entity carrying out criminal investigations, prosecution, or adjudication activities.”

Really guys? That was a top priority item?

Interesting though, isn’t it? Including indirect cost expenditures this would seem to apply to a very large number of Universities in the US. And now Congress has demanded they adopt nanny pR0n filters.

I don’t see any exceptions for classwork here, either.

I had previously noted a situation in which an ad for a volunteer (i.e., unpaid) postdoc position requiring 2-3 years of prior experience was posted in the San Diego area.

A bit by David Wagner (@david_r_wagner) on the KPBS site specifies:

Well, it wasn’t a joke. But it wasn’t exactly straight-forward, either.

The job listing was vague from the get-go. Who exactly was hiring? The only details given were “lab in La Jolla.”

Well, there are lots of labs in La Jolla. So I had to do some digging to find out which one posted this, and I found out that the listing was posted by a researcher named Laura Crotty Alexander. She’s a physician at the VA San Diego Healthcare System who doubles as a UCSD faculty member. I couldn’t reach her for comment.

If Alexander’s listing looked like a terrible opportunity, that’s by design, according to VA chief of staff Robert Smith.

“Frankly, what she was trying to do was make it look unappealing,” Smith said. “Because she was trying to create an advertisement that nobody would apply to.”

You see, the VA lab already had someone in mind for the position: a postdoc from Egypt who actually volunteered to work for free.

The reporter further specified:

which in my view is a far from uncommon situation. I’ve received inquiries about working in my lab under similar circumstances.

This is wrong.

You know how I feel about unpaid internships.
Unpaid internships are a systemic labor exploitation scam- yes, in science labs too.

That was written in the context of undergraduate “interns”. Imagine the magnitude of my distaste for exploiting a PhD with 2-3 years of postdoctoral experience. It is wrong.

1) It is wrong because it is labor exploitation. We dealt with that over 100 years ago in the US. Yes, exploitation always continues and is resisted in fits and starts by unions, regulation and competitive pressures. But the arguments remain the same, the benefits of exploiting labor are tempting and the excuses are no better in the scientific context. I don’t care that the candidate “volunteers”. I don’t care that the candidate is getting authorship or keeping her hand in the game of science or whatever excuse you want to advance. This is the case for all postdocs. Should we refuse to pay all of them? Heck no. Just like we stopped letting companies demand their employees worked in the mines for 14 hr shifts, 7 days a week with no breaks. Just like we discouraged and restricted company-store, company-town scams which ended up reducing real wages. Just like we established a minimum wage. Etc. Just like modern jurisprudence is rejecting free intern scams.

2) It is wrong because it is an unfair competitive advantage for those who choose to exploit junior scientists in this way. I am a PI who is competing for precious research grant funds with other PIs. This competition is based in large part on the work product that comes out of our respective laboratories. Data generated and papers published. If some other person gets labor for free and I have to pay for it, then I am disadvantaged. Under our general labor laws, this is an unfair tilt to the table. Everyone should have to play by the same rules.

Please, people. Call your Congress Critter. Draw their attention to this news report. Use your knowledge of their political positions to trip their triggers. Maybe it is the visa-dodging aspect. Maybe it is the “taking the job from American postdocs” aspect. Maybe they are sensitive to labor exploitation arguments. Whichever works, use it.

h/t: @neuromusic

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Addditional:

Tightly wound

April 17, 2013

A friend was recently observing that we academics seem pretty high strung right now. Cranked up to the breaking point, I’d say.

Of course we are. This sequester and continuing resolution thing has really put the bite on. The lab closings that seemed only in the realm of a Friend of a Friend or a likely possibility are now becoming reality. I’m seeing PIs leave. Close down. Jump ship. In all of this there are technicians and postdocs losing their jobs. Grad students who cannot find a funded lab to join after the rotations are finished up. Institutional decision making that seems even closer than usual to hand-flapping panic rather than a plan.

Baby, it’s cold outside.

I pointed out some time ago that inflation “UnDoubled” the NIH budget rapidly in the wake of sustained Bush-era (now Obama-era) flatline budgets for the NIH. Nothing like a graph to make a point so I’ll repost it.
Heinig07-NIHbudget-trend.jpeg.jpg

Figure 1. NIH Appropriations (Adjusted for Inflation in Biomedical Research) from 1965 through 2007, the President’s Request for 2008, and Projected Historical Trends through 2010.
All values have been adjusted according to the Biomedical Research and Development Price Index on the basis of a standard set of relevant goods and services (with 1998 as the base year).* The trend line indicates average real annual growth between fiscal years 1971 and 1998 (3.34%), with projected growth (dashed line) at the same rate. The red square indicates the president’s proposed NIH budget for fiscal year 2008, also adjusted for inflation in biomedical research.

Now, what I ran across today at Ethan Perlstein’s post on Postdocalypse now (go read) was this graph which makes the same point in a slightly different way. I like it. He didn’t link the source so I’m not certain of the inflation adjustment used…probably not the above BRDPI, I would think. But still…makes the point doesn’t it? At best the NIH purchasing power went up by 50%. It was never actually “doubled”.

UPDATE: Perlstein noted that he grabbed the figure from this article at dailykos by emptypockets which says this about the sourcing:

The Science column links to a study by Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University (PDF of PowerPoint slides) that puts some numbers on exactly how the doubling affected young scientists.

And help keep his attention on this possible throw-away from the State of the Union address.

I was heartened by several observations from the US President that seemed to suggest he understands that investment in basic research (no, not just targeted development) was the key to sustained economic growth into the future. But you need to help keep him on task. And get Congress on board.

I noted a few months ago that a Change.org petition has been launched to collect signatures favoring minor increases in funding for the NIH. There are 3,931 people as of this writing.

Are you one of them? Have you passed the link around your lab, department or Uni? How about to your academic socities? Have you posted it on your Facebook and Twitter feeds?

Please do.

I ran across a Change.org petition on the Twitts today that asks Congress to support scientific research in the current budget discussions. This one is focused on the NIH:
Congress: increase federal research funding for the National Institutes of Health

The text reads, in part:

Dear Members of Congress

I am writing to you today to implore you to support the House proposal to increase the 2012 National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget by 3.3% ($31.7 billion). Since the 1930’s, the NIH has been a fundamental supporter of basic biomedical research in the U.S. Funding from the NIH supports research in all 50 states. These awards are made to over 3,000 universities, medical schools, and research institutions, and they support more than 350,000 researchers. NIH funding to basic research has supported findings that were honored by 121 Nobel Prizes, including this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The nonprofit coalition United for Medical Research concluded that funding by the NIH in 2010 produced $68 billion in new economic activity, which is a greater than 100% return on our investment!

I urge you to add your name to the petition.
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The bumpersticker is from Zazzle.

from Nature:

The 2012 spending bill would cut the salary cap by 17%, from US$199,700 to $165,300, for extramural scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health…

I was wondering when some Congress Critter would figure out s/he can make some hay out of attacking scientists for their exorbitant salaries.

Here’s my question though. Since $250,000 per year is “middle class” according to the last round of political rhetoric which addressed the salary/class issue…by what justification should scientists be under attack?

[bit of a Twittersation going on as well, start here]
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p.s. The vast majority of NIH funded PIs are way, waaaaaay under the salary cap, going by my experience. I would estimate that a disproportionate number of them are MD’s as well. The theory on this latter is that they need to be bribed, I mean equivalently compensated, away from purely clinical careers. Agree or not, it needs to be considered.

p.p.s. While this sounds good on paper, in the immediate and medium term, this would roll back on those of us who are not BSD investigators making cap. Why? Because the Uni’s would have to come up with the difference. Money being fungible, this means less cash for startup packages, bridging support, faculty senate pilot awards, paying for administrative staff, graduate student salaries….

p.p.p.s. Despite the pain, and the fact that some day I’d love to be at cap as it is right now, I’m actually in support of this. In the abstract. And if there were some way to stave off the immediate pain for junior folks (there isn’t) I’d be a lot happier about it.