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Family-Friendly Policies Apply to All Grants

Now that I am a blogger, I’ve been careful to keep my eyes out for other blogs that may be having discussions about NIH-related topics. There has been some recent blog traffic on how NIH should support research projects when there are disruptions in careers due to family obligations. As pointed out by the blogger, our National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) explicitly offers a supplement to support a technical replacement for a postdoctoral research associate that may need to be away from the lab because of illness, disability or family care responsibilities. And the question came up, “Why don’t other NIH institutes and centers offer the same supplement program?” A very important question, given that NIH is obviously concerned about accomplishing the goals of the funded project but is on record as having the desire to foster a family-friendly environment for its supported workforce.    

It is worth noting that while most NIH institutes do not have a specifically identified supplement program for postdocs, policies are in place to allow grant funds to be used for parental leave and child care. This is an NIH-wide policy, applying to all grants, not just those supported by NIAID. The costs of replacement technical support can be charged to any NIH research grant, and, if necessary, the grantee institution can request an administrative supplement to cover the costs. Those standard provisions are described in frequently asked questions about Policies Related to Parental Leave and Child Care, which are posted on the Office of Extramural Research website. In addition, these policies provide for a number of other things, among them: 1) dependent child care expenses can be charged as part of fringe benefits provided through the grantee institution or through the indirect costs, as can the costs of  leave for the birth or adoption of a child if this policy is in effect for other institutional employees in similar positions, and 2) a grant may be extended or an investigator can reduce their percent effort to take a leave of absence for care-giving responsibilities. We also have recently implemented a policy that requires applicants who are seeking conference support to describe plans to identify resources for child care and other types of family care at the conference site to allow individuals with family care responsibilities to attend. 

I hope this is not the first time you are hearing about these policies. They are central to the NIH family-friendly position. As we at NIH continue to work towards developing a diverse workforce, we must do whatever we can to assure that the best and brightest are able to participate in research and being able to balance work and family life can certainly add to the attraction of a research career.

Updated: All our family-friendly policies are now on one page.

38 thoughts on “Family-Friendly Policies Apply to All Grants

  1. The NIAID is to be commended for its policy. Given that loss of a postdoc position due to family leave represents a severe loss of productivity at a time when continued funding is crucially dependent upon continued productivity, in the absence of such a policy, investigators may just try to avoid the risk by hiring someone who is not likely to need family leave.

    • Dr. Hurst:

      Your recommendation is wrong, discriminatory, and may even be illegal. It certainly isn’t in line with what the NIH is trying to acomplish in terms of the most productive and diverse workforce possible and support scienists at all levels. Amazing that you’d post such a comment; thankfully, the NIH does not support your position in any way.

  2. Thanks for clarifying this, Sally–if I’m not mistaken, you were talking about my recent blog post on this question. It is really exciting to know that the technical assistance supplements and childcare costs coverage through fringe benefits or indirect costs are possible NIH-wide. It would be extremely beneficial for NIH to announce this through a NOT, so the whole academic community could get the official word. Otherwise it leaves a lot of interpretation up to the institutions, who are often poorly informed about these things and unwilling to change their internal policies without some documentation.

    Because the “Policies Related to Parental Leave and Childcare” link comes through the “training” section of the grants website, there is a lot of confusion about whether those policies apply to R, U and P grants (and etc.) or just T, F and K grants. It would be really helpful to have your clarification on that, and again also for NIH to issue a notice establishing that as well.

    For an example of why we need the ‘official’ notice: at my institution, they still do not allow paid maternity/paternity leave salary to be charged from NIH grants–even though it appears from the link above that it should be allowable. This causes a trickle-down problem since departments then become responsible for covering the salary and benefits for any staff or faculty member who needs family or medical leave. The unspoken (and sometimes spoken behind closed doors) pressure is that requiring leave will negatively impact your whole department, *even* if you are already supported on a grant. What a pressure to put onto students and faculty! But until they see some kind of official notice or other documentation, my institution is unlikely to budge since they would not want to get in trouble with their Federal support.

    Thanks for taking this on and I am really excited to see you carrying on what Jeremy Berg and the other NIH bloggers started!

    • “There has been some recent blog traffic on how NIH should support research projects when there are disruptions in careers due to family obligations. As pointed out by the blogger…”

      Would you please provide a link to these posts, or the author’s name and title of the blog and date of the post? As I learned at an NIH-mandated ethics course, it is misconduct to discuss somebody else’s work without a proper citation.

      Sally, thanks for starting an open discussion about scientific policy. I look forwarded to reading. Arlenna, thanks for blogging about this.

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  4. “To clarify, child care support is generally covered as a fringe benefit cost and administrative support is recovered as an indirect cost.” [From OER FAQ Policies Related to Parental Leave and Child Care].

    Would you please explain this to me in plain English? I am an NRSA-funded postdoc at an institution that neither provides nor subsidizes childcare for employees. If I take 3 months off for maternity leave, how can I use my NRSA to pay for this? How can I use my NRSA to pay for childcare expenses? I did an informal survey of my peers (both postdocs and new faculty, n=~12 total) and none of their institutions, all tier I academic medical centers, provide or subsidize childcare (excluding dependent care flexible savings accounts). If the NIH will only match a childcare subsidy provided by the institution then you are limiting the scientists that can be helped by this policy. Why not enact a policy that applies to all NIH-funded principle investigators at any institution that allows them to use up to X dollars of funding per year on childcare or to hire a technician for up to 3 months during maternity leave?

    • axon76, my interpretation of Sally’s clarification is that the policies mean exactly that:

      Why not enact a policy that applies to all NIH-funded principle investigators at any institution that allows them to use up to X dollars of funding per year on childcare or to hire a technician for up to 3 months during maternity leave?

      and not only that, but that the amount of money allocated to childcare costs can be allocated as an indirect, rather than a direct, cost. So, for example, on your NRSA you should have been able to budget your childcare costs into the 8% indirect cost amount, and not into your salary/fringe benefit/supply direct cost amount–which is even better, because it means that covering those childcare costs doesn’t have to impact the PI’s bottom line.

      Since institutions negotiate their indirect cost rates for most grants with NIH, they should be able to negotiate for these circumstances (e.g. allow for grants with childcare coverage needs to have a slightly higher IDC rate above the base IDC rate, that will vary from grant to grant).

  5. Dear Sally, thank you for raising and discussing the question that has been on my mind for a while. As a “female PI” (sounds almost like an animal species – not quite endangered, but rare), I have been perplexed over the years by an apparent contradiction between the NIH stated goal to increase female participation in the academic research, in particular at the advanced career stages, such as tenure track professorship, and almost complete lack of investment into the appropriate infrastructure.

    What I say next is based largely on my impressions and if it is factually incorrect I would be more then happy to be corrected. What amazes me (in the negative sense of the word) is a complete absence of financial support for young researchers, women and men, starting families. To start of, with the current daycare costs, a family of two PhD students pretty much cannot afford to have a child, especially if they live in more expensive urban areas. A family of postdocs, with some financial sacrifices, can rear a single child, but almost certainly not two children. Hence, it seems like a rather cruel and unusual punishment that those who choose to pursue academic career path either cannot have children during the best childbearing years, i.e. twenties through early thirties, or have to compromise on which one of the spouses will stay in the academia, and which one would move to a more profitable job. Is it surprising that even in our emancipated times, family-driven career sacrifices are still usually made by women?

    That brings me to the question: what role should NIH play if any? In my opinion, if NIH wants to see more women pursuing research, it needs to invest into programs that would support families in general and women in particular. Enforcing the affirmative action as a sole policy is like treating a toothache with ibuprofen – it may take off the edge of the pain, but it does not address the problem. As I am not a doctor, it is easy for me to propose a cure. NIH could require, for example, that departments reserve maternity rooms, i.e. rooms where young mothers can pump milk. I vividly remember setting my breast pump next to the analytical ultracentrifuge, or having to resort to a rather unsanitary bathroom, perched on the side of the toilet, to pump milk three times a day. NIH could provide grants to institutions, universities and medical schools, to offset the capital investment to start affiliated daycare centers on campuses. Finally, NIH could provide small supplements, say on the order of 5 to 10 K, to students and postdocs who work on NIH-supported projects to help with the daycare costs for children under 4 years old (which is when public pre-schools become available). How expensive would it be? If it is too expensive for NIH to embark upon, then perhaps we should not be surprised that women fall of the face of the academic science some time during their postdoctoral training, and we should not be appalled by meetings where sections after sections go one without any “female speakers” (definitely and endangered species).

    Not only am I concerned that these or other family supporting programs are not instituted, but even more I am concerned by an absence of extensive public discussion of the subject. I am glad to learn that at least some policies are in place, although they are certainly not widely publicized or known. However, if I understand them correctly, they make it easier for PIs to cover the costs associated with trainees taking parental leaves, but they don’t provide much needed support to the parents themselves.

    • How about we all (NIH and academic institutions) come to grips with the real problem. Academic scientists at nearly all levels are woefully underpaid. If postdocs and junior faculty were paid a salary worthy of their education and training, there would be little need for govenment sponsored support programs. It would also attract more people into science rather than law and business.

  6. Thanks so much for this helpful post. We are interested in such issues and enhancing family-friendly policies to support women and dual-career couples in the sciences. We’re trying to make childcare resources easy to access and policie easy to find. See: stemfamilytravel.org

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  8. I’m confused by the NRSA policy on maternity leave. As a postdoctoral NRSA fellow it seems that since I am not technically an employee, I am not eligible for normal employee benefits. I mention this because from what I have read, it suggests that NRSA fellows can only take off 30 days for maternity leave. This is less than the already too short, 6 week national employee requirement. Why is this allowed? It seems like NIH should not be trying to create loopholes that make it harder for women.

  9. Thank you for this very interesting post.

    I would be interested in hearing some comments about the application of family friendly policies to K-awards. I have always been under the impression that policies on K-awards are distinctly family unfriendly, but would be thrilled to be corrected if I am wrong.

    In particular, my understanding is that the policies demanding full time appointments at the parent institution, and a minimum 75% committment to research rules out K awards for those who wish to work part time to balance family and work responsibilities. Is this true? Am I correct in my understanding that there is little flexibility in these policies? If so, these policies disenfranchise those trying to balance work and family responsibilities at a particularly crucial stage of their careers.

    Why not allow more flexibility for scientists who are balancing work and family? Even minor tweaks, like allowing a scientist to have less than a full time institutional appointment, or allowing even just one of the K-award years to be split into two half effort years would make a big difference, and would be a huge statement that NIH really takes this issue seriously.

    I think it will be hard for NIH to really make a case that they are family friendly until they take steps to make the make the principle grant that supports junior scientists family friendly.

  10. It is clear that this applies to research grants. The question has been raised if it applies to individual NRSA’s where there are no fringe benefits and limited F&A. For example, if a post-trainee takes 60 days of parental leave allowed, can the fellowship be extended to account for the 60 days of parental leave. If so, with or without additional funding. Thanks.

  11. Thank you for all your comments. You rightly point out that our policies allow you and your institution the flexibility to use your research grant or career development award funds to pay for sick leave and family-related leave, but only if these benefits are also available to all individuals, in comparable positions, at your institution. We can provide the flexibility, but we leave it up to the institution to determine what leave policies best fit their particular institution. See section 7.9 and 12.8 of the NIH Grants Policy Statement to learn what types of costs you can charge to your research and career development grants.

    Because NRSA training grants are intended for students and postdocs in research training, they follow different rules than research grants, which are typically awarded to employees. NRSA policies allow up to 15 calendar days for paid sick leave and up to 60 calendar days for paid family leave to be charged to the grant, as long as the institution offers the same benefits to other students and postdocs. (The FAQ that stated 30 calendar days for family leave was incorrect and has been updated.) An NRSA can be extended if you take unpaid leave but not for paid leave.

    With regard to percent effort for career awards, there is some flexibility to take a leave of absence, temporarily reduce your percent effort to 50%, or reduce your appointment to three-quarter time temporarily to accommodate personal or family situations. See section 12 of the NIH Grants Policy Statement for more details and talk with your program official to work out the arrangements.

    Stay tuned for additional information. We are developing a new Web page highlighting NIH family-friendly policies and initiatives.

    • Seems as if the NIH is passing the buck on family friendly policies, kowtowing to the policy of the PI’s university. If the university does not offer a maternity benefit, then neither does an NIH grant. The people this hurts the most are probably NRSA-funded postdocs. As postdoctoral fellows get older and the fellowship duration becomes longer, more and more women will want to have children during their postdocs. But without adequate maternity benefits, this will be difficult.

      Why won’t the NIH dictate that grantees must be provided with X days of paid maternity/paternity leave? With Y dollars to pay for a temporary technician during maternity/paternity leave?

      The NIH may argue that they are only a funding agency that does not regulate compensation (salary + benefits), and that scientists are free to choose a university position with the best compensation. However, the NIH already interferes by setting minimum salary levels — thankfully, because otherwise universities would pay scientists, especially postdocs, far less. Why not set minimum levels of maternity/paternity benefits as well?

      • ESPECIALLY if these costs can be integrated into grant budgets in such a way as to remove the disincentive that PIs already have to hiring people who might need family leave. That is the whole point of having these policies in the first place, and I’ll be really disappointed if NIH isn’t willing to put their money where their working group’s mouth is. Unfortunately, leaving it up to the institutions isn’t going to make things change.

      • I agree that it seems like the NIH is passing the buck by deferring to the personnel policies of the individual universities. However, I don’t think that is the fault of the NIH. My understanding is that this policy is based on the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-21 (http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/assets/omb/circulars/a021/a21_2004.pdf), which sets financial policies related to all federal grants to any university or educational institution (there is a separate document covering federal grants to non-profits that are not educational institutions).

        I haven’t read through the document in detail, but my understanding is that there is repeated language stating that grant costs like salary and fringe benefits are only allowable to the extent that they are comparable to the salary/fringe benefits/etc accorded to other university personnel in similar positions.

  12. These are all excellent points! Related to this, my co-workers and I were discussing how great it would be if NIH allowed us to use our grant funds to pay for childcare costs while we attend conferences. Many conferences now include childcare facilities, but they can be quite expensive (and therefore prohibitive) to pay out of pocket. Even if the child(ren) is/are left at home during the conference, additional childcare costs may be necessary to offset the absence of one parent who is attending the conference. As a mother, I carefully consider the childcare plans before deciding whether to attend a conference. If onsite childcare was something I could charge to my grant, this would facilitate my ability to attend conferences.

  13. I’m puzzled by some of the comments regarding NIH support for hiring a “temporary technician” during the period of absence of a postdoctoral fellow or graduate student on parental leave. This doesn’t seem realistic to me. Three months would be barely enough time to train a technician. In addition, technicians would only take a three month temporary job if it was their only option. In any case, such a technician could not replace a productive postdoctoral fellow.
    I have often wished that I could state forthrightly on grant renewal applications that progress was interrupted because of an X month parental leave. That might provide at least some relief from the disadvantage that PIs encounter when lab members take parental leave (which I support). It might be worth considering an actual question on the grant application allowing a PI to (optionally) state the number of months of parental leave taken by individuals working on the grant during the previous grant period. Some reviewers would ignore it, but others would appropriately factor that in to the evaluation of “progress”.

  14. Well said Olga!! I disagree that NIH is family friendly. These policies seem weak at best and seem primarily designed to serve the PI who loses the lab help more than the family in need. In addition, to the lack of publicizing these policies, the early stage investigator (ESI) is not very family friendly in calculating time after degree. My wife had a ton of trouble trying to get ESI status after taking off significant time for our three children. It never was granted, and yet she has an NIH R01 application that was recently listed at 5 points off the payline. Her institute also does not give 5 points for New Investigator Status.
    OK, council its time to see how family friendly you truly are versus some lip service.

  15. An important point to clarify is whether additional funds will be provided by all NIH institutes to cover the cost of a ‘replacement technician’ for individuals on family or medical leave. Personnel budgets on NIH grants are usually fully committed to full-time personnel, and do not offer the flexibility to add on temporary replacements.

  16. Thank you Michael for raising the issue of ESI status. I was shocked at the contradiction between the purported desire of NIH to be family friendly and the new policy of having ESI status expire after 10 years. I heard about the policy change 9 years out of graduate school, and it came into effect just as I hit the 10 year mark. During my years out of graduate school, I had two children which obviously had an impact on the progression of my career. I was annoyed not only that the policy wasn’t phased in slowly (so that people like myself had a few years warning to get pilot data and apply for an RO1 before their ESI status expired), but also with the stingy allowances made for family responsibilities. The stated policy is that you can add on whatever maternity leave you took to the ten years. I had 6 weeks per child meaning if I filed the paperwork supposedly I could extend my 10 year ESI status by one grant cycle. That is not what I call generous! What about giving a year per child like some tenure clocks do? In general, policies which put time limits on progress and hold it against researchers who are “slower” are designed to be family-unfriendly, unless a serious effort is made to counteract that side effect. Having children slows you down! Come on, how many of us are at our most productive when we were woken up 3 times the night before (never mind having to pump milk, miss work when they have a fever, etc). Even after you return from maternity/paternity leave, having small children influences your ability to produce at a rapid rate. This does not mean you are not good at what you do, or that you will not make unique contributions to your field, but it does mean you might take a little longer. This kind of policy is bound to exacerbate the problem that women are not “making it” in science because women in general are the ones who make more sacrifices for their family (although there are some men who choose to and good for them!). The justification I was given for the new policy to have ESI status expire was that there were people with years of experience doing research in industry who didn’t apply for NIH grants until they were very senior, and that NIH didn’t feel the ESI status was appropriate for them. I am not sure I even believe this. It seems much more common to me that the people applying at older ages for their first NIH grant are people who’s careers have developed more slowly, in many cases for family reasons. Thus, the policy of causing ESI status to expire seems in essence family-unfriendly. I would love to have someone from NIH explain to me why this was not the intention. One of the most frustrating things to me has been the stone-wall response I have gotten in my communications to NIH regarding this issue. I wrote two emails to the email address provided for comments on the new ESI policy, neither of which received a response. A friend of mine who wrote also never received a response. I don’t even know if anyone even read those emails…?

    Simply put, the policy of having ESI status expire is not compatible with a “family-friendly” NIH in my opinion, and certainly not in it’s current form with the stingy family care extensions it allows.

    • If ESI statuses didn’t expire, the numbers of applications would make it so that there was no advantage given to newer, younger investigators. I think it’s true they established this to distinguish from faculty who were very senior (e.g., HHMI professors or coming from another country) who could apply as a new investigator since it was their first time applying to NIH. I think the idea of the ESIs is nice and I know a lot of people who have benefited from that bump. NIH wanted to try and increase the numbers of young (and shiny) investigators funded so I don’t think it’s a bad thing. The clock’s always ticking.

  17. Thanks for the thread… I want to echo Michelle’s point….
    “One of the most frustrating things to me has been the stone-wall response I have gotten in my communications to NIH regarding this issue. I wrote two emails to the email address provided for comments on the new ESI policy, neither of which received a response.”
    I am a late stage post doc (who had 2 kids during that time) who was interested in applying for K99 award. While i’ve been told that i would be an excellent candidate, i was disappointed to find that there is a 5 year limit on time spent in your post doc for the application process (i was late in my 4th year when ready to apply). The NIH institutes are very wishy-washy about extensions being granted- so i contacted someone and explained the situation… specifically asking how much time I might be able to tack on for two maternity leaves (a total of 4 months). After about two weeks i received a reply that said “We do not grant waivers for the 5 year time limit ahead of time. I don’t know if a waiver would be granted.”…. yes, can i please take the time to compile a proposal, and all that goes along with that, get references to write letters for me, etc etc only for someone to say… actually, you’ve passed the five year period and we wont consider your application! I wrote back and pressed for more specifics on the policy, but never received a reply. In this case, NIH’s non-family friendly policy has impacted my ability to apply for transitional funding… and this, in turn, will likely impact my ability to get an academic position in this tough economy.

  18. Dr. Sally,
    Thanks for this informative blog. I applaud your initiative to clarify all the confusion that abounds around topics such as maternity leave and such for postdoc fellows. A few points:

    1) There seems to be an inconsistency between your blog that says that NRSA fellows are allowed 60 calendar days of paternal leave, however, the NRSA NIH F32 site says it is 30 days:
    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/policy/nihgps_2003/NIHGPS_Part10.htm

    2) It would be highly useful if you could clarify on other topics such as “whether F32 stipends are considered taxable income and hence whether FICA taxes can be withheld from them”. Moreover, what are the policies of various institutions in the country on this, including Univ of California?

  19. Dr Rockey, I would love to get some response regarding the expiration of ESI status. Can you explain the point of this policy? Do you agree that it has a negative impact on the “family-friendly” atmosphere of NIH?

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