Jennifer Rohn has a nice bit up at the Nature News entitled "Give postdocs a career, not empty promises" which overviews an issue of scientific careerism that is dear to my heart.
Consider the scientific community as an ecosystem, and it is easy to see why postdocs need another path. The system needs only one replacement per lab-head position, but over the course of a 30–40-year career, a typical biologist will train dozens of suitable candidates for the position. The academic opportunities for a mature postdoc some ten years after completing his or her PhD are few and far between.
The bit is an expansive argument for the problem, no doubt, and Rohn carefully outlines the need for something else in the nature of careers for doctoral-trained scientists. Something other than professorial rank, lab-head (aka PI) positions as the end game. She makes this rather explicit:
I also propose a solution: we should professionalize the postdoc role and turn it into a career rather than a scientific stepping stone.
I ran across this on the Twitts via laudatory forwards from Ed Yong and David Dobbs earlier today. Then some jerk rather snarkily observed that : "when I've made that proposal on blog, at least I've put up a mechanism, rather than pipe dream..."
What I meant by this is that the Rohn piece leaves us hanging. It is all well and good to describe the problem. But in some senses this is an obvious problem. It is discussed endlessly. The solution, some career-type position at less-than-PI level, is not a flash of unique brilliance. What the real question is, in my view, is how our business could be tweaked to accomplish this goal. How can we create these positions within the Universities in our respective countries and under the general funding mechanisms available to us?
I have a specific proposal in mind that could easily operate within the US NIH-funded atmosphere. I probably first alluded to my solution here at the old blog (before DrugMonkey sold out and went all corporate) and most recently in a comment over at the OER blog. As far as I can recall (ok, Google), the fullest description of my proposal was in an entry that I'm reposting, below. My point for today is not that this is the correct solution, rather that it is a solution. A specific proposal that could be acted upon. Perhaps you would like to supply similar proposals, large or small, that could accomplish this goal which has been described so nicely by Jennifer Rohn.
This entry first appeared Aug 6, 2008.
A Policy Forum piece by Michael S. Teitelbaum in Science opines at length on the so-called "structural disequilibria" in biomedical research [h/t: writedit]. This is mostly a recitation of all of the familiar NIH funding woes (including reference to the NIH budget undoubling analysis); if not entirely novel in theme, at least there is a new focus here since Teitelbaum is arguing that until serious changes in the structure of the biomedical research/funding enterprise are put into place we will continue to experience boom/bust cycles no matter what the NIH budget may be. Much is familiar so your eyes may have glazed over after the first or second sub-sections. I wish to draw your attention to something interesting Teitelbaum mentioned right at the end.
He ends the piece with a series of recommendations of which one is that we may need:
New mechanisms to better align the Ph.D.-postdoc systems with demand in the labor market for their graduates, e.g.,
b. Allowing increases in NIH research funds to support career-path biomedical research positions (e.g., professional staff scientist positions) at research institutions rather than depending on temporary students and/or trainees.
This is a relatively common theme of disgruntled post-doc'ing. Some people come to the realization at some point that their career ambitions would be well served by a stable position as a research scientist. Someone who toils away at the bench, in the field or equivalent, conducting and overseeing studies, analyzing data, writing papers without the many, many headaches of being an independent PI with a professorial appointment.
The fact of the matter is that many, many Ph.D. wielding individuals are in the process of serving out such a career. The trouble is that it is not a stable, formal job category. So anyone who makes it to retirement, does so by matter of a series of accidental or lucky steps in joining a lab or labs that can sustain the stable level of funding that is required to maintain very senior Ph.D. level non-PI scientists. This makes this particular ambition a fairly dodgy one.
So what do people with such ambitions do instead? Well, some people jump to industry positions of one sort or another...BigPharma or big/medium biotech. Some just grit their teeth and jump from lab to lab if they have to. Others try for faculty / PI jobs...even though they may not actually want to do so.
I think Teitelbaum's point is that particularly this latter issue increases the pressure with respect to the stream of new PIs with new labs which must get funded with NIH grants. Pressure which might be alleviated by creating a way for individuals who do not want to be PIs with big labs to have a reasonable expectation of a professional career doing the science that they love.
I'll need to be convinced of that. What I do not need to be convinced of is the value of having a stable career path for people who just want to be scientists (in academic labs) without the pressure to jump up to PI-dom. First, because I know quite a number of such people and can see how their contributions to science are great- while recognizing there is no way they are cut out to be PIs. Second because selfishly as a PI, I'd love to get a whack at such an individual in my own lab.
Let me just jump up even higher on my soap box here for a minute and remind you all. The time is still ripe for things to change at the NIH. A fair review would have to admit that much of the hot air of the past two years has started to result in tangible alterations. NIH is listening and many things that turn up in opinion pieces in the GlamourMags have a way of becoming themes for much additional discussion- including from NIH powers that be. So start talking about this issue if you think it is of value.
I have a modest suggestion, of course. The K05 mechanism. Or rather, something much like the K05. The NIAAA and NIDA version of the K05 is the "Senior Scientist Research and Mentorship Award" of which the Executive Summary says:
The Senior Scientist Research and Mentorship Award (K05) is intended to provide protected time for outstanding senior scientists who have demonstrated a sustained high level of productivity conducting biomedical research relevant to the scientific mission of the appropriate institute to focus on their research and to provide mentoring of new investigators.
It is expected that most candidates will request five years of support; requests must be for a minimum of three years. Awards may be renewed one time for up to an additional five-year period.
The K05 award will provide salary support of 75 percent of the institutional base salary (up to the current Federal salary cap limit for NIAAA applicants; up to $90,000 for NIDA applicants) for up to five years based on a full-time, 12-month staff appointment, plus fringe benefits. The candidate must devote a total of 75 percent of full-time effort to the proposed program, with at least 25 percent of that effort directed towards mentorship activities.
Candidates must be outstanding established senior scientists and recognized leaders in their field of research, and be able to demonstrate the need for a period of intensive research focus as a means of enhancing their research career and a need for protected time to conduct their mentoring activities.
Candidates are expected to have independent, peer-reviewed research grant support at the time of submitting the K05 application. Additional funds will not be provided to support the applicant's research activities. [emphasis added]
The NCI version says similar things but this is the only other announcement I'm finding at the moment.
What a schweet deal. The K05 is apparently for well-funded PIs to leverage their position by gaining what is essentially salary support and/or buy-out from other institutional responsibilities (like teaching or clinical duties, I assume). Let me tell you that from the perspective of a soft-money investigator this would be a VeryGoodThing to acquire. Ahem. But I'm off track.
Suppose something like this were made available for career Ph.D. scientists as essentially a fellowship. Without any requirement for a professorial appointment and minimal actual research component. The important point being that it is applied for, awarded to and evaluated for renewal by the career scientist with every expectation that this is a career award. There would be details of course. You'd have to have a host lab at most times- but allow for transition if one lab loses grant support or something. Nice and easy for the supported career scientist to find a new lab, don't you think? "Hey, PI Smith, I have my salary supported and I'd like to come play in your lab..." would go over quite nicely. Progress could be evaluated just as with any other award, keeping the pressure on for the individual to publish.
But that's just one way it could work. What say you Readers? Any other ways to support career bench scientists? Where are the pitfalls?