Rock Talk

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Looking Back, Looking Forward

This certainly has been a tough year for the research community supported by NIH. We started off the year on a continuing resolution with the threat of sequester looming. In March sequestration began, and we had to update our fiscal plan to accommodate reduced spending by making fewer competing awards, and in most instances issuing non-competing awards at levels below the expected FY2013 commitments. The impact of the sequester is not just limited to this fiscal year, but as Francis Collins and I blogged about, we will continue to feel the effects into the future.

Then there was the federal shutdown in October that closed much of NIH for several weeks, and severely affected our application award and review cycles, causing a scramble among NIH staff and reviewers to get research back on track by rescheduling missed review meetings, and more. The one silver lining that came out of the shutdown is the shining examples of dedication and perseverance – particularly by those involved in the peer review process – to rally so that all missed review meetings could be rescheduled in time for January Advisory Councils as originally planned. Once again, a sincere thank you for your patience during that incredibly frustrating time.

Throughout we’ve been working hard to keep research moving, this has been a landmark year for NIH in so many ways. We issued several funding opportunities for $147 million funded by the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 to recover losses to NIH-supported research resulting from Hurricane Sandy, including helping to restore damaged research and facilities.

We have made significant progress implementing the Advisory Council to the Director recommendations in three main areas. Recommendations on big data have translated to initiatives such as the Big Data to Knowledge Centers of Excellence and more. We are supporting efforts to enhance diversity in the scientific workforce by establishing a national collaborative forum through which awardee institutions, in partnership with the NIH, will develop and implement novel and innovative programs to engage individuals from diverse backgrounds. In both these cases, we have or are bringing on high-level leaders to take these programs to the next step. Earlier this month we announced Dr. Philip Bourne will join NIH as our first-ever permanent associate director for data science. And as I’ve blogged about often, we have implemented and are continuing to implement ACD recommendations on biomedical workforce initiatives. This includes the flagship BEST program, a program designed to prepare trainees for diverse career opportunities, which already issued its first awards. Other changes stemming from the ACD recommendations range  from work to acquire better data on NIH-supported scientists, encouragement of  individual development plans for trainees, expanding NRSA F30 and F31 fellowships to be offered by all NIH ICs, and a plan to increase postdoctoral stipends sometime in 2014.

We have continued pilots of innovative resources such as SciENcv and PubMed Commons. Together with the family of Henrietta Lacks, we navigated new territory, developing a plan to allow biomedical researchers access to valuable genomic data while protecting the privacy of Henrietta’s family members. And of course we announced the BRAIN initiative and its new funding opportunities, an exciting development towards fully unlocking the mysteries of the brain.

As we put 2013 behind us and go into the new year, even in the midst of an uncertain budget climate I am confident that we will persevere and continue moving forward, keeping in mind how truly exciting our science is and celebrating all that we do to improve lives through research. I hope you all have a wonderful 2014!

21 thoughts on “Looking Back, Looking Forward

  1. Interesting to contrast your Big Data and BRAINI approaches with your one for diversity. Try switching those around…”establish a forum..blah, blah…in partnership…blah, engage” in Big Data. Can’t you hear the outraged howling about what a joke of an effort that would be? It is embarrassing that the NIH has chosen to kick the can down the road and hide behind fake-helplessness when it comes to enhancing diversity. In the case of BRAINI, BigData and yes, discrimination against a particular class of PI applicants (the young) the NIH fixes things with hard money- awards for research projects. Why does it draw back when it comes to fixing the inequality of grant awards identified in Ginther?

    When you face up to the reasons why you are in full cry and issuing real, R01 NGA solutions for the dismal plight of ESIs and doing nothing similar for underrepresented PIs then you will understand why the Ginther report found what it did.

    ESIs continue, at least six years on, to benefit from payline breaks and pickups. You trumpet this behavior as a wonderful thing. Why are you not doing the same to redress the discrimination against underrepresented PIs? How is it different?

  2. Dr. Rockey,

    Please Please Please Please can you do something to equalize postdoc benefits in the extramural funded community. It is not fair that postdocs who have worked hard to obtain NIH NRSA funding (F32) or have been placed on an institution based training grant (T32), or have successfully obtained a fellowship from a non-federal source (ie foundations) either receive no benefits at all or have to pay more for the same benefits as “employee” postdocs do. I have to report the “value” of my benefits as income, a number that exceeds $10,000 a year being added on to my income and being taxed and which I receive no additional compensation to cover. I further excluded from being able to set aside pre-tax money to cover health expenses, child care expenses, commuting costs or put pre-tax money aside for retirement. I perform the same “job” as other postdocs in my lab who are funded by my boss’s RO1 grant, yet I earn less (due to paying more in taxes and not being able to reduce my taxable income through pre-tax deductions). Some postdocs I know who are on other types of fellowships receive no benefits at all. I know at some other institutes they offer postdocs on fellowships the ability to get on to “student” health care plans that are very subpar compared to “employee” postdoc health care plans. I know you and others at the NIH are well aware of these issues and have been for a few years now. Will you please fix this problem. Here is a solution, explain/petition to the IRS that postdocs are ALL performing the same types of jobs regardless of funding sources, and therefore ALL should be viewed as employees of their respective institutes. There is more than enough evidence to prove this point. If this can’t be achieved than perhaps the NIH can force institutes to offer the same benefits packages to ALL their postdocs regardless of funding source and additionally compensate postdocs on fellowships/training grants to make up for the lost income due to the tax issues explained above. If the NIH is not able to do this, then they could do something novel and make all NIH NRSA fellows and trainees employees of the NIH and offer them the benefits package the intramural NIH postdocs receive. Please fix this in the first few months of 2014, the time is now for the NIH to make this right.

  3. For perspective:
    Higher priority: developing cures for diseases.
    Lower priority: enhancing diversity.
    Both are worthwhile goals. If resources are limited, then accomplish the higher priority first. This seems consistent with what Dr Rockey is saying.

    • Exactly – Both are high priorities, because if these studies about the impacts of underrepresentation are true, then investing in enhancing diversity LEADS TO more efficient development of cures for diseases.

  4. The justifiable premise for the NIH being concerned about fairness, broadly construed, is that open competition is the way to get the highest number of the good ideas at the table. Also a way to hedge our national scientific interests by relying on diversity of approaches, models, systems, etc. Equal, open and fair competition of *ideas* is the goal, identification of systematic biases should be seen as a canary-in-coal-mine indicator.

    And, as I mentioned, the NIH is already in the very heavy handed business of redressing biases against other classes of PI. Ditto topic domain and scientific approaches.

    Why is this different?

  5. Kevin- In addition, the NIH is expending dollars on their misguided initiatives. I’m suggesting these limited resources would be used to much greater effect by simply picking up more R grants. The money will go to knowledge generation and the success rates identified by Ginther will be immediately fixed. I predict that the success-breeds-success factor will both stabilize existing investigator pools and increase the pipeline draw that is the current focus. At least as much as the happy-talk initiatives will do.

    Finally, the past 70 yrs of US culture has shown that there is nothing that helps with overt and subconscious discrimination more effectively than putting fixes in place and waiting for facts on the ground to normalize expectations and beliefs.

  6. Please don’t increase postdoc stipends while we are still being cut grants! The best postdocs either get their own fellowship and/or leave quickly. Postdoc salaries were increased hugely not too long ago – and most Universities are free to add to the NIH level for postdocs, but most consider NIH level the minimum. If this is rarely exceeded, it tells you what the problem is.

    Anonymous above is right, if postdocs on stipends pay taxes and postdocs who are staff have tax benefits, that is a University policy issue that should be dealt with at the University level – increasing NIH levels for postdocs is not going to help that. There could be, however, an NIH ruling that postdocs of T32s and F32s should have no less benefits than postdocs on PI R01s.

    • Please don’t increase grant funding while postdoc stipends barely keep up with inflation! The best PIs either already have an ROI or go into industry! Grant funding has been going up since the 1990s – and most Universities already pay their professors a salary!

      • The purchasing power of the modular grant (the $250K cap has never been changed) has steadily eroded due to inflation. Increasing postdoctoral salaries are part of this. Data posted on this blog show that the number of postdocs supported on RPGs dwarfs the number supported on fellowships.

        Your snark is appreciated but it is uninformed.

        • DrugMonkey, I understand the plight of the ever-shrinking R01, but if the Post-doc salaries are a drag on your budget, why hire them at all? Just hire techs and ask any postdoc interested in joining to bring their salary support with them. Insisting on hiring postdocs, expecting them to work >60 hr weeks and then complaining about their 40K salary is just really tasteless.

        • Sorry – didn’t mean to imply you (DrugMonkey) were tasteless, as I’ve never heard you complain about post-doc salaries. But I do find complaining from PIs about post-doc salaries to be tasteless.

  7. “Postdoc benefits need to be equalized NOW!”
    I was dismayed at being dropped from my institute’s benefits package upon receiving an F32, becoming a non-employee. I was able to buy into a “student” plan, which would have used up almost all of my Institutional Allowance, leaving little for conference travel (an important aspect of the training grant). Thank goodness for my spouse’s plan, which was on par with my previous plan, not to mention half the cost of the “student” plan, so I did not have to change providers. Although, I was prohibited from using any of my IA to offset the costs (no explanation given). I also lost the dental, vision, and retirement benefits, enjoyed by other Post-docs funded by RO1 grants. The F32 award has been a wonderful funding opportunity for me, and has me on track for independence; however, it should be pointed out that I feel that I was fiscally (if not academically) better of had I worked just as hard to contribute to another RO1 for our group. Last, I think the worst thing was that nobody informed me that my status, and all of the ensuing benefits, would change upon receiving a training grant. Had I known, I could have planned. As it was, we had to really scramble to get onto my spouse’s plan, saying that I was terminated as an employee to qualify for a life changing event. Is it true that the NIH is aware of this issue?

    • Yes the NIH has been aware of this issue (NRSA funded postdocs losing benefits or having to pay more for their benefits than non-NRSA postdocs through the way they are taxed). From the biomedical workforce report that Dr. Rockey has blogged numerous times about: “NIH should require and adjust its own policies so that all NIH-supported postdoctoral researchers
      on any form of support (training grants, fellowships or research project grants) receive benefits that are comparable to other employees at the institution. Such benefits include paid time off,
      health insurance, retirement plans, maternity leave etc.” Additionally, within this report they cited survey data on postdoc benefits at numerous institutes carried out by the NPA: . This survey clearly demonstrated that postdoc benefits are not equitable at the majority of institutes between “employee postdocs” and “non employee postdocs”, and this survey was directly cited by the NIH in the biomedical workforce report, indicating knowledge of this situation. Lastly, after the biomedical workforce report came out in 2012, there was an RFI the NIH posted which gathered feedback from the research community about the biomedical workforce report (Dr. Rockey posted a blog post about this RFI last winter/spring) and the NIH has since published the findings from this RFI ( In this RFI the NIH noted that postdocs supported on NRSA were at a financial disadvantage compared to non NRSA funded postdocs and that benefits were not equitable. All in all, the NIH knows about this problem and has suggested that the benefits be equalized for ALL postdocs regardless of funding source, however they have not taken any policy steps to do anything about it. I feel that the silence from the Rock Blog team on this topic suggests one of two things: Either the NIH has no plans to make any policy changes to correct this issue and feels that this should be dealt with at the institute level or the NIH recognizes that there are some potential lawsuits that could be initiated by postdocs against both their institutes and the NIH for these policies and they are afraid of commenting on this issue for legal concerns. If I am wrong about this then I would greatly appreciate if Dr. Rockey would at least reply to my post and tell me that the NIH is working on this issue. I can’t speak for other postdocs, but I can say that I would feel much better about the whole situation if I knew that at least the NIH was working on a solution to this problem rather than knowing the problem exists and doing nothing to correct it. If the latter is true, then the only recourse might be for postdocs to initiate a class action lawsuit against the NIH for unfair labor practices.

        • Dr. Rockey and Rock Blog Team,

          Thank you for the response. It is important to postdocs that we know the NIH is taking this seriously and is working on correcting the problem. I know the NIH has a tendency to “recommend” something and then allow each institute/university to do what they want with this recommendation, but in this case, I am certain that will not suffice to correct the problem. I have spoken with other postdocs at a variety of institutes who have been affected by this policy in a variety of ways and some are contemplating terminating their F32′s or asking to be removed from their institute’s T32 grants as a result of this policy. Perhaps the changes in health care value reporting forced by the affordable care act has made this policy issue one that needs more immediate action on the part of the NIH. I appreciate your response and will keep a keen eye on the Rock Blog and the NIH notices page for an announcement from the NIH about how they are going to fix this problem.

        • The National Postdoc Association (NPA) has been collecting data on postdoc benefits from member institutes. Is the NIH working with the NPA on this effort? If not, then the NIH should consider reaching out to the NPA on this issue as the NPA has already gathered a fair amount of data on this issue.

  8. I agree with the other comments asking NIH to please do something to address the inequality of benefits between postdocs supported on fellowships and grants. Because I’m on an F32, my institution basically treats me like I don’t exist. I receive no benefits whatsoever from the university, and wasn’t even allowed to buy into a university health care plan with my institutional allowance. The only solution the university offered to getting health insurance was for me to buy it on the private market and get reimbursed out of my institutional allowance.

    From the university’s perspective, since they are not getting the indirects and fringe benefit money they would get from a grant, they have no incentive to treat postdocs on fellowships as staff or offer them any benefits. This suggests that the fastest way to fix this, other than simply forcing institutions to comply, would be to allow a fringe benefit rate on top of the fellowship stipend, just like it would be budgeted in a grant, on condition that institutions then provide the same benefits they would for those funded on a grant. I realize this would increase costs, but that could be partly offset by reducing the institutional allowance somewhat, since currently a big chunk of that generally goes to health insurance.

    • I love it. Postdocs are now nearly the equivalent of fast food workers. That’s right Sally and Francis, there is no evidence that PhD production is exceeding demand.

      • The NSF has recently put out their 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators Report ( ). In their labor force chapter, there is some striking data about the career and salary outcomes of biological science degree holders. Notably, 5 years after earning a master’s degree one earns more than a PhD 5 years post degree. Also notable is that the percent of PhD holders in biological sciences to obtain tenure-track positions continues to sit around 15% (although I think this is an overestimate, as this only includes those who earned their PhD in the US). The NSF looks at all of science and engineering, but they had to have an entire separate section in the report just for biomedical sciences because of the dire situation occurring for these trainees. Much of this section is just a rehash of the 2012 biomedical workforce report from the NIH, but it still shows that there is a lot of work to be done and step 1 is recognizing it might be time to turn down the production of PhDs in biomedical sciences and “train” less postdocs.

  9. Pingback: 2013 Year In Review at NIH | Meg Bouvier Medical Writing

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