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Following Up On ACD Recommendations, and Paving the Road to Continued, Future Success

At the Advisory Committee to the Director’s meeting today and yesterday, NIH director Francis Collins, NIH deputy director Lawrence Tabak, and I presented some exciting new initiatives in support of the future of biomedical research.

As I’ve blogged about before, the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) formed three working groups to address three important topics in science — harnessing the power of biomedical data and informatics, achieving diversity in the biomedical research workforce, and developing a competitive and sustainable biomedical research workforce. In June, these working groups presented their recommendations, and at the ACD meeting yesterday and this morning, we proposed how NIH would implement them.

Two new initiatives would support the management, analysis and integration of large-scale data and informatics. The Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) initiative seeks to facilitate broad use of biomedical big data through new data sharing policies, catalogs of datasets, and enhanced training for early career scientists entering the new world of big data.  The NIH InfrastructurePlus initiative will advance high-performance computing, agile hosting and data storage, and modernization of the NIH network, among other approaches.

In response to the diversity working group recommendations, NIH proposed launching several initiatives to meet the great and important challenge of increasing diversity in the biomedical workforce. Two of the programs focus on enhancing mentoring. For example, a new NIH program called BUilding Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) provides rigorous mentored research experiences for undergraduate students, resources to help faculty train highly effective mentors, and more. NIH also proposed establishing the National Research Mentoring Network to connect students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty with experienced mentors — in-person and virtually — as well as provide relevant workshops and training opportunities in grantsmanship. The BUILD program and NRMN will form a consortium to link trainees and investigators from groups that have been underrepresented in science to majority investigators.

In addition to these programs, NIH would test multiple interventions to assess and mitigate the effects of implicit bias in peer review, including diversity awareness training for both scientific review officers and members of review panels.

To spearhead these efforts, NIH would recruit a chief diversity officer to not only coordinate diversity initiatives, but to oversee a rigorous prospective evaluation of existing extramural and intramural diversity programs, and join NIH’s intramural program as a practicing scientist.

Finally, as co-chair of the working group on the biomedical research workforce, I’m excited to share how NIH plans to support this critical component of the biomedical research enterprise, and improve the training experience of graduate students and postdocs alike. We intend to launch a program to support innovative approaches that expand and complement existing research training to include science-related career outcomes, and also encourage the adoption of individual development plans for all trainees. NIH plans to increase the funding of awards that encourage independence like the K99/R00 and early independence awards, and increase the initial postdoctoral researcher stipend. NIH also intends to embark on novel ways of improving the trainee experience, such as looking more closely at, and soliciting community feedback on, postdocs’ access to workplace benefits.

Additionally, NIH plans to expand our ongoing assessments of the biomedical research workforce, including conducting a follow-up study on clinician scientists, and developing a simple and comprehensive tracking system for trainees. Collecting this data will not only help us with evaluating NIH’s current workforce initiatives and planning our future efforts, but also provides valuable data for those considering careers in biomedical research.

These are all ambitious initiatives which will take some time to refine and implement. As they unfold, I will continue to discuss their details here and in other forums. It’s very satisfying to see how the past two years of work is coming to fruition. I think we’re headed in the right direction, and I am looking forward to your feedback.

49 thoughts on “Following Up On ACD Recommendations, and Paving the Road to Continued, Future Success

  1. I was a bit stunned by what I read. The recommendations do not come close to addressing the real problems we are facing right now. I was amazed that the major suggestion was to train more researchers. Putting money into this when we are all concerned that our current trainees will not be able to find funding to work in their field, seems disingenuous at best.

    • If you understand where the federal money has been largely coming from for NIH research (foreign investment) and contemplate the unwritten associated requirements for training-up these ‘rich’ countries to be competitive and participatory, it all makes sense. Forget the little American scientist, and the NIH training policies are easy to understand.

      • I don’t really understand this comment. Are you saying that our obligation is to train non-US scientists because we are in debt to China? That is a totally spurious argument. I think Emma’s point was more along the lines of saying that there is already not enough money to go around (in terms of higher-level funding such as R01s), a problem which is compounded by the unwillingness of very senior investigators to retire and make way for the next generation. I don’t see how these initiatives to increase the entry-level workforce even further will fix any of that – if any thing, they will make things worse. Bottom line, there already is a workforce at the Early Investigator and more junior Established Researcher levels, but no funding for them to stay in science. How about devoting our limited resources to that?

  2. increase the initial postdoctoral researcher stipend

    So the plan is really to continue to inflate the post-doctoral NRSA pay scale???? And this is the plan when *many* institutions (most?) require that post-docs supported by NIH RPGs be paid at minimum what their NRSA stipend would be were they an NRSA fellow, and when RPG budgets have been cut and cut and cut and cut and are continuing to be cut further in desperate attempts to maintain R01 paylines, with no end to this cutting in sight????

    I have said this before, and I will say it again: The only possible end-game to this continued simultaneous slashing of RPG budgets and inflation of the NRSA pay scale is (1) more layoffs of RPG-supported post-docs and (2) the few post-docs still supported on R01s sitting in front of computers playing Angry Birds because there is no money left after paying their salaries to pay any other research expenses.

    • Let them eat cake! Perhaps, Comradde, it’s been too long since you worked in the salt mines. After the opportunity cost of years of earning potential set aside to educate ourselves to become PhDs like you, we are condemned to penury? Are there no prisons, have the workhouses closed? Look. We are highly trained professionals, i.e. expensive. The entire postdoc system is just a shunt to holding pattern for having too many trained academics and not enough positions. If higher pay results in fewer positions then that’s a -good- thing. Quit viewing us as cheap labor and recognize that we are desperately scrambling for security. We’re getting older, forced to constantly move, write grants -and- do the actual research, all without job security, and you think a salary less than half of yours is fair? Well I guess you got yours so the rest of us can suffer. Next you’ll wonder why so many of us leave science. Don’t hurt your neurons trying to figure that out.

  3. Interesting. A grant outcome disparity for younger investigators leads to a massive and immediate initiative to fund proposals out of order.

    A grant outcome disparity for African-Americans leads to….”initiatives” and “study”. In other words, nothing.

    Fascinating NIH. Can’t imagine why you have the problem in the first place.

    • You know that NIH will not do anything that will get people yelling “Affirmative Action!”. No amount of data about funding biases would lead to any sort of direct action. Studies, affirmations of priorities and a deep hope that the problem will just go away.

      NIH could take a similar approach as they have towards early stage investigators. I’m guessing that’s not going to happen.

  4. Oops! Unfortunately, a technical glitch kept us from receiving any comments submitted Friday afternoon through this morning. If you submitted a comment that has not been published, please know that we weren’t ignoring you! Just submit it again for it to be published.

  5. I am very happy that the NIH is planning on making some changes to the way postdocs are trained. I applaud the NIH for setting the tone that postdocs are not paid well enough given their previous education and training and am hopeful that the new stipend levels will appear in 2013. My issue with the issue of compensation lies in the problem that these do not take into account a given locales cost of living. For instance, NYC’s cost of living is 1.59 times the national average. When the NIH releases the new postdoc stipend levels in 2013, they should also suggest that schools and institutes in higher cost of living areas compensate postdocs above these minimum levels such that every attempt is made to index the NIH minimum to the area’s actual cost of living.

    I am glad that the NIH wishes to change the culture of ensuring a positive career outcomes for all those being trained, not just those on T32′s. I believe that the NIH could put some muscle into changing this culture. First and most importantly, the NIH needs to redefine the term “success” to include other scientific career paths that are very important such as teaching, editing, and writing as well as research in a non-academic environment. Second, the NIH should require that any of the new grants being offered for enriching career development of postdocs/students only go to schools and institutes that publish the career outcomes of their students/postdocs on their webpages. This will offer an incentive beyond just “encouragement” for schools and institutes to track the career outcomes of all of the students and postdocs they train.

    While I was elated to see that the NIH is interested in putting out a minimum set of benefits that should be given to postdocs, I think this largely ignores the larger issue at hand. Two different categories of postdocs exist, trainees (T32, F32, other fellows) and non-trainees (those on R01s). For postdocs that are trainees the IRS deems that their stipend is not income but rather compensation to offset living expenses. The tax implications of this is that no deductions can be made since this is not income. The problem with this is that the “value” of benefits must be added as income to be taxed, increasing the tax burden of these postdocs and offsetting any financial advantage of winning one’s own grant. Furthermore, based on this tax status a postdoc cannot use pre-tax money to reduce medical and transit costs, establish a pre-tax retirement account, or if a postdoc has children they even cannot deduct childcare costs. The NIH should work with the IRS to resolve this issue, perhaps by changing the status of postdocs such that postdocs are considered apprentices or what would be even bolder, employees of whichever institute they work at.

    • Do you understand that such changes will mean fewer available post-doctoral positions? The NIH pie is shrinking, and raising post-doc stipends/salaries means fewer post-doc positions. This is simple arithmetic. Do you understand that you could be one of the post-docs who has no job at all as a consequence of these new policies?

      • Perhaps Rock Talking staff (or Director Rockey) would care to address why the modular grant limit has not been altered from $250K / year in direct since the creation of modular budgeting? There are many positive reasons for staying under the modular cap but this means that there is a further pressure on PI budgets.

      • Do you understand that when the NIH budget was significantly increased under President Clinton that Faculty salaries increased dramatically yet graduate student and postdoc stipends barely kept pace with inflation? Do you understand that way back in the 1990′s there were calls to increase the starting postdoc stipends to $45,000, yet we still have not reached that level? Do you understand that many of us postdocs have and are currently actively consulting with unions and that if the NIH does not make changes soon postdocs will unionize and demand a far larger increase in pay and benefits? Do you understand that the prospect of obtaining a faculty position for a postdoc is considerably lower (14%) then it was 20-30 years ago (~30%), and that the time in “training” to obtain such a position is increasing such that the average age of a new faculty obtaining their first RO1 is 42 years old? With all this in mind, can you see how many of us postdocs are sick and tired of hearing from faculty about how our stipends are too high as it is. If increasing postdoc stipends leads to less postdocs being hired that is not necessarily a bad thing. There has been a dramatic increase in postdoctoral numbers for fewer and fewer available faculty positions. This might also help faculty actually mentor their postdocs and help them find positions instead of treating them like worker bees that are there just to be chewed up and spit out without any concern of their career outcomes.

        • I wholeheartedly agree, post-docs should be payed a reasonable amount to cary-out their lives and support their families in training up to the current 42 year average age for obtaining a permanent position. Though it would be much better if scientists obtained permanent positions much earlier, like 30 years old at most, like in the ‘staff scientist’ positions the biomedical workforce group recently recommended. In retrospect, the ‘information economy’ started by President Clinton ~1992 has not faired that well for America after 20 years. We transferred all our knowledge and ‘good’ jobs to other countries. It’s hard to sell information (education) after your customer sets up their own system for production.

          • Note: In January 2012, Forbes magazine declared that we are now in a ‘Feedback economy’ and that the ‘Information economy’ has ended. One difference is that in a feedback economy you constantly think about and adjust to changes in where and how information/data etc. is obtained, used and sold. Gee whiz that took a lot of thinking. Too bad it didn’t happen 20 years ago, but I guess we wouldn’t have learned our lessons otherwise.

        • Good luck finding a lab to train in under those conditions. Who can afford that on an RO1. My last two post-docs just left. One went back to China and the other is working on a pharmacy degree. I doubt I will hire any more. I am looking for a Research Associate that will be a permanent staff person in my lab rather than a temporary trainee like a post doc. The cost is the same and you get more continuity.

      • With a shrinking NIH budget, it will get worse anyway. The postdocs are just demanding their PI go to hell with them. For most PostDocs who will be ruined anyway, they do not care if their PI go down with them.

        • Tight funding climates are what most PI’s deem “cycles” and they have happened before. A PI once told me that during the Reagan Presidency the funding climate was so bad he was advising his postdocs to start thinking about finding another trade because the NIH was going to close its doors in the near future. Innovative PIs weather these downturns in funding and are still productive. The same is true of good postdocs who are able to obtain their own funding in these hard times. These notions have nothing to do with postdoc stipend levels. If a PI really thinks that increasing their postdoc’s pay by ~$3K a year will lead to them having to close up their lab then that is just evidence that they are not managing their lab’s finances well and perhaps suggests that they are having trouble obtaining appropriate funding for their research. There are lots of ways to save money in a lab, but fighting to keep postdoc salaries from increasing to fair levels is just stupid. If these PIs are so concerned about it why don’t they argue to their own institutes to kick in more money to offset these minor increases. Lastly if a PI is having that much trouble obtaining funding that saving the $3K/year is the difference between maintaining their lab or closing its doors, why don’t they throw in their own money to close the funding gap? You want postdocs to be so passionate about our projects that we are willing to work for less than we should but you aren’t willing to also sacrifice?

          • Tight funding climates are what most PI’s deem “cycles” and they have happened before.
            Yes they have but you should take a look at the data. All of it. Numberswise this one is far, far worse than any we have seen since the complaints during the Johnson administration.

            Innovative PIs weather these downturns in funding and are still productive. The same is true of good postdocs
            What you mean is that after the fact there are some survivors. You have no evidence regarding who has been washed out during a downturn. Nobody tracks those data. We may have lost the smartest postdocs, i.e., those who are not willing to put up with the uncertainty and delay. We simply do not know.

            that is just evidence that they are not managing their lab’s finances well

            Clearly you have never actually run a lab and tried to maximize output, consistent with the implicit promise made to the taxpayer upon award of a grant. Clearly you’ve never had to deal with 10% across the board cuts to a noncompeting renewal. Clearly you can’t think beyond a one-postdoc laboratory, about salary rises that hit in year 3 after a budget has been written under official NIH escalation constraints. etc.

            why don’t they argue to their own institutes to kick in more money to offset these minor increases.

            Postdocs are certainly free to try this for themselves. Good luck with that.

            why don’t they throw in their own money to close the funding gap? You want postdocs to be so passionate about our projects that we are willing to work for less than we should but you aren’t willing to also sacrifice?

            In fact many PIs do. In various ways, whether it be not pursuing raises, kicking their consulting fees back to the institution to pay their postdocs more or whatnot. But even if they do not, on what basis should a PI sacrifice if you are arguing you should not do so? What basis other than the purely selfish do you operate on? Once you make it past this trainee stage, do you not feel you will have a lot of economic catching up to do? Remember, in inflation adjusted dollars your current NRSA scale is higher than it was for most of the current mid-career PI cohort. Look, everyone wants to make more money. If you want to show some sort of inequity that is because of PIs’ salaries, you need a better rationale.

          • Sorry to blaspheme, but JTFC there is just so much wrong with your post I don’t know where to begin.

            First, basic math… NIH budgets are flat or going down, but NIH rules on what post-docs must be paid keep going up. This is, in common political parlance, an “unfunded mandate”. The simple solution is for NIH to raise the 250k cap on modular budgets, to pay for this. When unfunded mandates happen out in the “real world” (e.g. your county government can’t meet its Medicaid bills), funds are usually sequestered from elsewhere, such as cutting services (fire some teachers, fewer trash collections). In the case of lab budgets, there is no “elsewhere”, unless you’re planning on sitting at an empty bench with no supplies to do any lab work? Maybe we could replace the computers less often, so you’d have to wait longer for facebook to load? Maybe we could insist you make more reagents yourself instead of relying on “kits” for everything? (I’m serious, if you can’t do a protein assay from first principles without a kit from BioRad, you’re not worthy of a PhD in the life sciences).

            You suggestion that PI’s lobby their departments for money is quite funny – I hope it’s a joke. The last guy I know who tried asking for more money was fired the next month. Ha ha. It’s more often the other way around – institutes lobbying faculty to cover more and more of their salaries from external grants. You will clearly make an excellent PI, and won’t annoy your chair at all.

            Your similar suggestion that PIs “throw in their own money” is, quite frankly, offensive. With kids in school, a mortgage, and retirement at least 10 years closer than it is for you, naturally I have huge piles of Benjamins just stuffed in a mattress waiting for such occasions. Would cash be OK or would you prefer a check? I’m intrigued by your use of the word “sacrifice”, because an annual 3-4% pay raise in the face of low inflation doesn’t sound like much of a sacrifice to me.

            Lastly, it’s not the isolated $3k increase most PIs have trouble with, its the year-on-year, above inflation, never-ending rise in post-doc pay, with no increase in the budget to pay for it. You’re coming at this issue, as if it’s the first time anything like this has ever happened. So go ahead, take your measly $3k, but sure as hell don’t ask for another $3.5k next year. It might cause me to question just how really “passionate” you are about this lifestyle (notice I called in a lifestlye, not a job).

          • I agree completely–if faculty want their labs to survive in these tough times, give back some of your salary and channel it back to the lab, Professors. Show your heart and soul for science. I know many who have and I’ll keep doing it.

          • Mat is correct here on all counts. If you ever have to deal with a real budget you may understand.
            When I got my first post doc I made $18,000 a year and was happy for the opportunity to train in a well established lab. I did not make the amount a first year post-doc makes now until I was well into my first faculty position.

    • Your indignity is making my hair hurt. Choose to live in a cheaper city. Postdocs who are supported by an R01 should still be considered ‘trainees’ like their F32, T32, and other fellowship funded brethren. Some of us have either not yet received, or have already depleted, funds granting such prestige. Tell me more about the hardship of your tax exempt status. The rest of us are doing it, taking their 1099 Misc, and paying self-employment taxes.

    • If we are going to spout anecdotes about our PIs, I remember mine complaining about NIAID R01 funding rates dropping to 21% (sometime around 1995 as I recall). Now we are at 7%.

  6. It seems to me that the discussion of postdoc salaries is not the whole picture. I think that the first entry in this blog hits the nail on the head, and I add my thoughts from that leadoff post, as follows.

    The premise behind this meeting / report was that an Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) was going to tackle a very big problem in biomedical research; namely, the ACD was tasked with….

    “developing a model for a sustainable and diverse U.S. biomedical research workforce that can inform decisions about training the optimal number of people for the appropriate types of positions that will advance science and promote health. Based on this analysis and recognizing that there are limits to NIH’s ability to control aspects of the training pipeline, the working group was asked to make recommendations for actions that NIH should take to support a future sustainable biomedical research infrastructure.”

    I would agree that (1) this is a major problem and (2) the recommendations found in the report ( amount to putting lipstick on a pig.

    I believe that this problem goes beyond the NIH, extends to Congress, and reflects some sort of a generational / cultural issue relating to the relative lack of backbone that I see in most of my peers within and outside of science. I am not sure when aligning one’s words with reality (i.e., integrity) became less important than saying what was popular. However, here we are. The stupidity within the NIH seems boundless. More troubling, there seems to be no mechanism to self-correct. Good science is not being funded, and yet I recently learned that the NIAID still has to spend ~$1.5 billion per year on biodefense because of the specter of bioterrorism. How many people die of bioterrorism each year? Last time I checked, that $1.5 billion could be used to fund an awful lot of PIs who have been proposing good science that does not address the hypothetical concern of bioterrorism. Way to go NIH….I sleep better knowing that there are now stockpiles of smallpox vaccines and anti-smallpox antiviral drugs out there to deal with an extinct infectious agent. Also, I note that gun violence and bombs will continue to be a far more efficient tool for those who wish to wage war and terror.

    Against this background, I was recently encouraged to invent new avenues of research that would align with the fact that NIH has a truckload of money earmarked for “biodefense projects.” My response……to hell with this!! I would rather become a gardener than subvert my scientific integrity to come with a bogus line of research to chase after a pot of money set aside to deal with the Boogie Man.

    There are lots of other jobs out there. The simple reality is that NIH has show a chronic inability to deal with simple math, and the fact that there does exist a logical ratio of funds available to (1) fund PI-driven research relative to (2) the amount of money spent training grad students and postdocs. The data is in guys, and the wheels have come off the bus. The NIH “leadership” is not dealing with the constraints of math (or science), and as long as this continues to be the case, the best and the brightest Americans will find gainful employment in an arena where their time and talents can be applied to something that is ACTUALLY USEFUL. This is the essence of what science should be about.

    Unfortunately, American science has been taken hostage by a peer review system where a grant proposal that proposes sound science that is important is trumped by the fact that NIH paylines have been 10% or below for 4 years, and there is no end in sight. This is no longer a “system,” but is now a lottery.

    Social security and NIH funding are both effectively pyramid schemes, as structured, and self correction is necessary in both. The question is simply how long will it take for the stakeholders to have enough courage and conviction to state the obvious, and address the real problem? The report of the ACD meeting squarely indicates that the NIH is not planning to deal with the problem in the immediate future. However, I do note that the NIH’s pig looks pretty good in hot pink lipstick. Good job guys! Go NIH! I have full confidence that the NIH will be issuing more amusing, pretend solutions in the years to come.

    Bill Halford
    SIU School of Medicine

  7. I look forward to seeing more details of these initiatives.

    However, none of these seem particularly innovative. What about the problem of time to first R01, or the dwindling paylines, or the postdoc holding pattern that can last years?

    How about supporting initiatives that emphasize innovative Masters, or PhD programs that still support biomedical science but allow alternative career outcomes, some of which provide business and other skills that result in skipping a postdoc altogether enroute to industry jobs? Has the working group concluded that the only meaningful scientific path is on the tenure track? There are several successful models for such programs (for example at KGI and Wake Forest) that produce Masters and PhD scientists that go into business. Perhaps programs like these, which speak to the problems that have been articulated, could be piloted or NIH could study these models?

    While I support higher salaries for postdocs, would increasing pay substantially reduce the pressure for individuals to move on, perpetuating the “holding pattern” problem? I’m just asking – I really don’t have a feel for how it would play out. And, if the pay for a postdoc (and their enhanced benefits) is well over that of an excellent technician, have you not inadvertantly provided an incentive for deleting them from grant budgets? (Maybe that is your intent?)

    The more things change, the more they stay the same, it would appear. Though I hope for better.

    • We’ll be going into more detail in future blog posts, and you can watch the full meeting on the ACD website, but we can give you highlights of the multiple career options question in this space, for starters:

      Not only did the working group acknowledge that there ARE other meaningful scientific paths than tenure track positions, but they also came to the conclusion that “The current training programs do little to prepare people for anything besides an academic research career, despite clear evidence that a declining percentage of graduates find such positions in the future.”

      So, we proposed a grant program to support innovative training programs that complement traditional research training in biomedical sciences at institutions that receive NIH funds. Not only would such training help scientists who pursue traditional research, but it better equips trainees who do decide to enter into other career tracks.

      The presentation slides used in the meeting will be posted on the ACD site as well, and we’ll be providing more detail as these initiatives are fleshed out, so stay tuned as we refine and implement these proposals and discuss them with you here, and via other forums.

      • Is there a plan to address the specific question of mismatch between inexorably increasing NIH-mandated post-doc pay and inexorably decreasing RPG budgets? Because this has a vastly bigger influence on the biomedical research workforce than “innovative training programs that complement traditional research training in biomedical sciences at institutions that receive NIH funds”.

        Is NIH interested in who is going to lose their biomedical research jobs and how this mass contraction of the biomedical workforce is going to influence the careers of those who lose their jobs?

        • Yes, this is a huge problem. For a single R01 lab, here’s the math: $200K grant. 30% salary support for the PI + benefits (29%) = $39K; $3K/month mouse costs = $36K per month; $45K + 29% benefits for a technician = $58K, $42K + $5K benefits for post-doc = $47K. This leaves roughly $20K for supplies. This is a very tight budget for a single R01 lab. Should the post-doc salary increase year after year after year at a 3-4% rate, I’m looking at an additional $15 to $18K including benefits. Where does that money come from? My R01 budget shrinks each year while mouse costs and consumables go up.

          I think the NIH doesn’t have a clue as to what is going on in the real world without inflationary increases to R01 budgets. I would like to see the NIH staff advocating to congress and to the American people rather than forming these do-nothing, nonsense committees with recommendations from the land of ostriches (heads in the sand). My two cents…

          • “I would like to see the NIH staff advocating to congress”

            And after they all get arrested and thrown in jail for breaking the Anti-Lobbying Act, what then?

            If you want Congress to start taking biomedical inflation into account with the NIH budget, then you need to start organizing as researchers and grantees and voters and get them to do it, because no one at NIH is allowed to.

          • Remember, the Biomedical Research Workforce Committee is an external committee of the Advisory Council to the NIH Director, many of whom have oversight over research programs at our grantee intuitions. Committee members were very aware of the implications of an NRSA stipend increase and a proposed benefits adjustment on postdocs employed to work on projects associated with research grants. They understand that NRSA stipend and benefit levels are frequently used by institutions as standards for all postdocs, which means that institutions will probably choose to adjust those factors for postdoc employees. The increase costs, therefore, will flow through all components of the biomedical research enterprise.

            The committee was compelled by the language in the NRSA statute (Section 487 of the PHS Act) that stipends and other cost factors associated with training programs should be adjusted from time-to-time to address changes in the cost of living. Individuals in their 30s are having families and need to have a reasonable income and a reasonable benefit package. This applies to individuals supported by NRSA as well as individuals employed as postdoctoral research associates.

            We will be working through the details of implementing the working group recommendations with a clear sensitivity to the tight funding times.

          • Director Rockey-

            Forgiveme, but specificproposals for postdoc raises on one side and diffuse promises of sensitivity on the other are not confidence inspiring. Particularly when the NIH is so wedded to cutting budgets to keep paylines/success rates artificially inflated.

            Let’s see an equally effort full call to increase the modular limit…that would be a strong step. I believe $350,000 direct would be a good adjustment.

          • I agree with this comment 100%. I was amazed how little money I have left over from my single modular budget R01 with which to actually do science once everyone’s salary has been paid. If I were not on hard money, I wouldn’t be able to do anything except play Angry Birds. I certainly cannot afford to train more than one grad student at a time – so where is anyone going to get the money to pay for more?

  8. …and since Dir Rockey seems to be reading the comments this week…when will you address the problem of the Lost Generation? At the very least tell us that the policy of the NIH is indeed to keep the OldGuard well funded into their 70s and to jump up as many 30-somethings as possible while letting the GenXers suffer.

  9. Since this issue has been raised about supposed year to year increases in postdoc salaries being in the 3-4% range I thought I would go back and actually check this out with data from the NIH webpage. Here are my findings (shown as average year to year percent changes in NRSA stipend levels in 5 year blocks) * Note that the last increment is only from 2010-2012.

    postdoc yr 0 postdoc yr 3 postdoc yr 5
    1990-1995 3.00733078 0.604089219 0.63559322
    1995-2000 8.165008026 7.384451234 7.378803963
    2000-2005 5.854505762 4.538847663 4.282558788
    2005-2010 0.971076184 0.196990424 0.19721871
    2010-2012 1.718197478 1.639910967 1.645672709

    What I think everyone can appreciate from these numbers is that while there were larger increases in postdoc stipend levels in the mid 1990′s and early 2000′s, these increases have completely gone away. When you look at the year to year data you can see that over the last seven years either no increases or only marginal increases (below a typical 3% cost of living increase and certainly below yearly inflation) in postdoc stipends have taken place. This certainly does not take into account increases in health benefit costs which perhaps is what is making it seem like postdoc stipends have been increasing at higher rates in the last several years than they actually have.

  10. “Not only would such training help scientists who pursue traditional research, but it better equips trainees who do decide to enter into other career tracks.”

    I’m sure that will help those institutions who haven’t pulled their heads out of the sand and realized that their trainees are pursuing many career options besides academia. We have well established training programs that explicitly focus on preparing PhD students for a much broader science landscape. Unfortunately, many of the “alternative” careers that NIH and others like to invoke like industry, science writing, teaching, etc., are also highly competitive and a little bit of extra training activity is not going to overcome the problem of having 300 applicants for a position. There need to be fewer PhD training positions. It’s pretty easy to figure this out – don’t allow students or postdocs to be funded by RPG. They should have to be funded by fellowships, training grants or by committed funds from the institution (which will end up being nothing). NIH can certainly regulate these numbers more accurately than by the current system.

  11. “NIH also intends to embark on novel ways of improving the trainee experience”

    It’s worth pointing out that a major part of the trainee experience is working toward longer term career prospects with a reasonable chance of success (NOT just talking about academia here!). Improving the trainee experience, putting more money into K99 awards and postdoc salaries and increasing diverse representation are good things, but just ineffective bandaids if the major structural problem of the financial instability of the research infrastructure (i.e., universities hire too many faculty based on federal budgets they have no control over) isn’t addressed.

  12. I am stunned that they propose to increase the postdoctoral pay scale. This is just more honey to attract the flies. The taste will be short and sweet, because most of the faculty we hired in the last 10 years (myself included) took a pay CUT to leave a NIH postdoc and take an assistant professor tenure-track job a smaller academic institution. But we did it because that is the economic reality. If the price of a postdoc was rationally linked to supply and demand, it would pay far less, and hence attract fewer people, providing the scientific birth control we so desperately need after tripling the number of biomedical PhDs in the last 20 years.

  13. Reality

    The NIH committees are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Increasing the modular grant size only decreases the number of grants. Increasing the postdoc stipends decreases the number of slots. The NIH budget is not a national priority. We train way too many PhD students- MD learned that to keep demand high for the product limit supply. They make it difficult for foreign medical graduates to get trained in the US.

    We need to learn from the MDs. We have way too many PhD programs, too many PhD students and a grant system based on the project, while the unit of science is the lab. NIH itself bases the intramural program on the lab, not the project. Labs have pretty stable budgets- yes they get reviewed, but are generally smaller than lots of academic labs. We would get better science with stable labs, fewer trainees. Medical schools base expansions on the idea the faculty will fund not 30% for 80 or 90% of their salaries and the IDC will pay the mortgage on the buildings. We call that highly leveraged.

    The idea of skipping a postdoc is really dumb. When I finished my PhD in the middle ages relatively few people did postdocs- but they were usually the best students who wanted the time to work in the lab and not waste huge amounts of effort getting funded and teaching. Why is this a good idea?

  14. I cannot believe the solution to the diversity issue is more training. What about a blind review process? Training reviewer on their bias is likely not going to fix the problem. What exactly are you going to tell them? Why does nih not fol low the NSF format and create funding mechanism that are specifically focus on diversity? The NSF BRIGE mechanism for instance is open to folks of all background provide the pi can make a case that funding them would significantly contribute to diversity. Want to keep a diverse pool of applicants, then find ways to create programs that put money directly into diverse PI hand.

  15. I do not see how the proposal addresses the issue of bias. The bias in the peer review takes many shapes; racial, ethnic, gender, and religious. Most of these can be followed and quantified as recently done for African American applicants. The discrimination based on religion is hard unearth as it is not easy to know PIs religion. The PIs’ name give away their presumed religion in two cases, those with Jewish last names or Islamic first or last names. I suspect that both of these groups may face some level of discrimination but this discrimination is significantly greater for PIs presumed to be muslim. This is because there is a much better representation of Jewish PIs in the study sections which I presume reduces open bias towards them while there are almost no PI with Islamic names on most study sections. Furthermore, post 9/11 Islamofobia clearly works against PIs with Islamic names/last names.
    I am one of those unfortunate enough to have (had) Islamic name. In my case, ten years of submitting grants yielded nothing; changing my first from an islamic one to an old Kurdish name coincided with me getting two NIH grants in three years. During those ten years that I could not lend a single grant, I wrote seven NIH grants (with someone other than myself as PI) and four of those proposals were funded.
    I notice that this an anecdote, but based on my experience there might be a lot more bias in the system than these studies will suggest. There is one simple solution around all of these issues: institute a two stage review system where in the first step PIs identity is not know and proposals are evaluated on scientific merit. Those that score in top %25 (chose your cut-off) should then have a second stage of review where the research team or progress is evaluated based on clear, objective, and quantifiable data. This could be number of published papers multiplied with the impact factor publishing journal per a given amount of funding (i.e. every 250K in direct costs), number of people trained, number of patents filed etc. This will not totally eliminate bias but will make the playing field a lot more fair for all involved.

  16. Oh please, when I started as a post doc I made $18,000 a year and was happy to have the opportunity for the training in a well known lab. It is supposed to be a temporary training position, not a full time job.

  17. I applaud the NIH for taking on these efforts in the context of the current fiscal climate. There is no one way to fix the many challenges in the system. However, the systematic approach the NIH is taking is very encouraging.
    I’d like to just raise one point that, until now, and much to my surprise, has not been highlighted in this forum. There is a very large elephant in this room that no one is talking about. By many estimates, 60-70% of all postdocs. are foreign-born; possibly even more than that, but since no one tracks this population, we simply don’t know for sure. Therefore, simply limiting the amount of Ph.D. trainees through the U.S. system is not going to stem this issue. If the U.S. pulls back on their Ph.D.-training programs, other countries will simply export more of their Ph.D.-trainees to our U.S. Universities to fill-in the gap. Let us not forget that this is a global issue that we’re dealing with and until now, I have not heard too many comments about how the U.S. is currently the primary ‘Trainer-In-Chief’.
    Much like how the AAMC regulates the incoming amount of medical students and residents into training programs, leading to our extremely well-trained U.S. physicians, we must acknowledge that this system (or some other regulatory body) may also be required to fine-tune U.S. researcher training. This would likely lead to an overall decreased workforce size that in the eyes of some, would likely decrease productivity. However, quality trumps quantity. We have had an explosion of worthless journals that have appeared because much of the current workforce is so geared towards publishing anything, even when they fail to find something significant, that it’s time to acknowledge the waste in the system. The steps the NIH is taking will, directly or indirectly, increase the quality of the researcher. I foresee a lot of pain during this transition. But tumors are always painful to remove.

  18. A question for the blog team– I recently had the opportunity to watch Dr. Rocky’s talk to the AAMC about the Biomedical Workforce recommendations. I wanted to clarify the decision and implementation timeline for including trainees on R series grants. Did I understand correctly that funding for pre- and post-docs will no longer be allowed on research grants? If so, what is the timeline for implementing this change? Will it be rolled in over time, such that if students are currently on grants, they can continue through the life of that grant, or would such a change be implemented as part of non-competing renewals? Will students still be allowed to be paid employees on grants (e.g. part-time RAs, vs. in trainee position)? And what is the timeline for extending the F31 mechanism to all NIH institutes?

    • Regarding students and postdocs supported by research grants: the working group recommended that the proportion of trainees supported by training grants and fellowships be increased without increasing the overall numbers (which would result in a corresponding decrease in the number of students and postdocs supported by research grants). NIH believes that implementing a number of other working group recommendations such as the DP7 grants program to encourage innovative training approaches, shortening graduate students training, and raising postdoc stipends will improve the quality of training for all students and postdocs. Therefore, NIH will not implement the recommendation to increase the number of students and postdocs supported by training grants and fellowships at this time. NIH has no plans to discontinue support for predocs and postdocs who serve as research assistants and associates on research grants. Regarding F30 and F31 awards from all ICs: this will be implemented over the next year.

  19. Pingback: Does Your Academic Training Destine Your Choice of Research Subject? | NIH Extramural Nexus

  20. These are some ambitious initiatives but I too feel they will do wonders for the field of biomedical research. Looking forward to reading more.

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