Faculty of 1000

Post-publication peer review

Working for the man

Posted by rpg on 20 April, 2010

I wonder if US President Barack Obama is onto something here.

You may have heard that he’s asked asked for a 6% increase in the NRSA stipend—the National Institutes of Health’s ‘training’ stipend—for postdoc fellows. He’s apparently going to fund this by cutting 0.5% of funded fellowships. (I should add that because of the bizarre way the US funds its post-docs, this is simply an increase in a theoretical baseline. Apparently, most post-docs are paid less than this entry-level, especially if they’re non-US citizens, although some are paid more. The whole thing confuses the hell out of me: in civilized countries each agency sets a national scale so everybody knows what everybody’s being paid.)

Six percent. Sounds nice. Well except some people have realized that this might mean that principle investigators might have to cut the number of staff they employ so that they can afford this 6% increase—and predictably there has been some vociferous reaction. To an outsider (yes, I post-docced in a few labs, but never in the US) this all seems rather confusing. It also misses the point that in general, and especially in the US, post-docs have a pretty raw deal. All right, so short term contracts are no way to live your live, especially if you want to bring up a family and do other normal things that human beings like to do, but at least in the UK and Australia you can get a pension plan, to which your employer will contribute. And the pay, actually, isn’t all that bad: nothing like a physician or a lawyer with an equivalent number of years of training under their belt might get, but certainly a decent wage.

The problem is that there are too many post-docs, and they all want paying. The tragedy is that most of them are eventually going to get so fed up with science that even after two, three post-doc positions they’re going to pack it in and change career. Now, that’s maybe not such a bad thing for the person involved (and I certainly can recommend it) but I wonder if that’s good for science in the long run. I wonder if it’s more cost-effective to have fewer, better paid post-docs and really give them a good run at this thing called science?

Jenny Rohn has already called for revolution along these lines. Nobody here is talking about reducing the science budget (although I have argued that maybe we shouldn’t be so precious about science funding); rather we’re thinking of giving more to the very best and giving them more to do it with. Is that President Obama’s plan, do you think? Is he that far-sighted?

Whatever you think about this, if you’re in the US please remember to take our salary survey and get in with the chance to win $100 Amazon vouchers (direct survey link). And tell us about your worst ever vacation job using the #vacjob hashtag on twitter to win a bag of F1000 goodies.

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