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Update on the Postdoctoral Benefit Survey

In 2014, the NIH announced that it was going to distribute the NIH postdoctoral benefits survey to collect information on benefits available to postdoctoral researchers at different institutions. The survey was launched in response to a report on the biomedical research workforce from an Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) working group. The report included recommendations for improving graduate student and postdoctoral research training through a number of measures that included increasing postdoctoral NRSA stipends and considering adjustments to policies related to benefits like health insurance.

With regard to benefits, the report recommended:

“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.”

As a first step in the gathering information from NIH stakeholders pursuant to the report, OER staff members issued a request for information (RFI) inviting comments on several of the recommendations. Respondents to the RFI who commented on postdoctoral benefits expressed concerns about differences in benefits available across different classes of postdocs and supported the idea that all postdocs should have comparable benefits including: health insurance, dental insurance, vision insurance, disability insurance, retirement plans, as well as annual, sick and parental leave As many readers know from firsthand experience, in accordance with the NIH grants policy statement, NIH trainees and fellows “generally are supported for 12-month full-time training appointments for which they receive a stipend as a subsistence allowance to help defray living expenses during the research training experience. The stipend is not “salary” and is not provided as a condition of employment with either the federal government or the recipient organization.” This non-employment status associated with Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSA) was identified as a potential contributor to the observed differences in benefits of NRSA recipients compared with postdocs supported on NIH research grants who, at some institutions are considered as employees. Several commenters offered personal examples of challenges or hardships stemming from the lack of benefits at their institutions.

The NIH postdoctoral benefits survey was designed to collect more structured and reliable data on the types of benefits offered to postdocs and how those benefits might differ across different forms of support at different institutions. The survey was conducted in collaboration with the National Council of University Research Administrators (NCURA), which helped identify administrators at member institutions. The institutions invited to take the survey included 334 unique educational institutions, research institutes and research hospitals. All institutions had received at least one NRSA award and/or supported at least one postdoctoral researcher on an NIH research grant during fiscal year 2013.

In total, the NIH received 167 responses (including partial responses) for a response rate of 50%. Respondent institutions reported that 91% of postdocs received health insurance and 88% received dental insurance that was similar to comparable employees like staff scientists. However, postdocs were much less likely to participate in retirement plans that were comparable to other employees or to have similar leave benefits (55 and 70 percent, respectively). The survey showed that institutions with smaller numbers of postdocs were more likely to have similar health and/or retirement benefits than institutions with more postdocs.

Graphs showing responses to questions: Are Standard Health Benefits Offered to all Postdocs Irrespective of Source of Support? (by Number of Postdocs at Institution) and Are Retirement Benefits Offered to all Postdocs Irrespective of Source of Support? (by Number of Postdocs) For data tables please visit http://report.nih.gov/special_reports_and_current_issues/index.aspx

Among those institutions that reported offering different retirement benefits to postdocs supported on NIH grants compared with postdocs on NRSA support, only three institutions provided retirement benefits to NRSA recipients. Forty-four (29 percent) of the institutions reported that none of their postdocs receive retirement benefits.

Graph showing responses to question: Q25_26. Please indicate whether or not postdoctoral researchers supported on each of the following sources of support at your organization receive retirement benefits For data tables please visit http://report.nih.gov/special_reports_and_current_issues/index.aspx

Several of the respondents reported that the survey was difficult, requiring collaboration across multiple offices within the same institution. In some cases the complexity of the survey may have influenced the response rate and the quality of the information provided. Nevertheless, the results largely track with information collected by Sigma Xi, the Federal Demonstration Partnership (FDP) and the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) and suggest that concerns described in the Biomedical Research Workforce Report are realistic. Although many institutions have identified ways to offer a standard benefit package to all of their postdocs, standardization appears to be difficult for other institutions, especially those with large numbers of postdocs. And, as previously reported, many NRSA recipients enjoy a less complete benefit package than those employed on research projects.

Considering the age, career stage, the duration of postdoctoral experiences, the ACD felt that all postdocs should have a full, standard benefit package. Over the next several months, the NIH will consider various policy approaches that will help institutions adjust benefits accordingly. Thanks again to the research institutions participating in the benefits survey; NIH looks forward to working alongside all its grantee institutions, and the research community as a whole, on this very important issue.

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10 thoughts on “Update on the Postdoctoral Benefit Survey

  1. I applaud the NIH for finally putting out an update on this important matter. However, it was never a doubt that the vast majority of research institutes and universities provide benefit packages to NRSA postdocs that may be similar to their non-NRSA postdoc peers. The bigger question has always been who bears the cost of these benefit plans. For many institutes and universities the costs are passed onto the fellows, as they are not deemed employees, and thus do not benefit from employer subsidized benefit rates. I have personally known postdocs who terminated their F32 fellowships over this issue since they couldn’t afford the health care plan costs that exceeded 50% of their annual stipend. Can the NIH please share the data collected on this question which was collected in the survey. This would be far more informative. With that in mind, does the NIH have any plans to release the full data set collected from this survey, of course aggregated de-identified data would be more than sufficient. Lastly, will the result of this survey be that the NIH finally makes it clear policy-wise that research institutes and universities are able to make NRSA postdocs employees. As you pointed out, this is the biggest elephant in the room that has been driving this mess. Universities fear that doing so will incur lawsuits, fines, and be more a headache than its worth. If the NIH takes the lead here, that would dramatically change this situation.

  2. As an NRSA fellow, I find it ironic that I don’t have subsidized healthcare benefits although I am supported by the National Institutes of Health. Luckily, I have insurance through my wife, so I don’t have to shell out $1200/month to cover the two of us. She can’t provide me with retirement benefits, however. I hope these issues are worked out soon.

  3. As we near the two year mark since this initial survey was sent out to schools on the matter of benefit differences between employee postdocs and postdoc fellows, it is a reminder of how remarkably slow the NIH has been to respond to this matter. The NIH took two years to conduct and analyze a terribly put together survey, release minimal data that everyone in the community is already familiar with, acknowledge that problems may exist, and then state that an undetermined amount of time will be spent trying to figure out solutions to these problems. We don’t need a cancer moonshot to fix this problem, we just need swift changes to policies made so that Universities can finally equalize benefits for postdoc fellows. Francis Collins will likely be out as the Director of the NIH after Obama leaves office. Wouldn’t it be great if one of the things added to his legacy was that he fixed the benefit disparity that exists for postdoc fellows. This is a direct challenge to you Dr. Collins, show us what kind of leader you can be. Show us that the NIH actually means what it says and make the necessary policy changes to right this wrong.

  4. Has any progress been made on this important matter? We waited over a year and a half for the survey to be analyzed with no substantive findings reported by the NIH. Are we now to wait another year and a half for some minor policy tweaks to be made without fully addressing this matter? I and my postdoc fellow colleagues feel very let down by the NIH on this important issue. We won these prestigious awards from the NIH to conduct our research and then were left without an option for affordable health benefits for our families. We are tired of waiting to only hear empty promises from the NIH. Please fix this matter soon, and by soon we don’t mean waiting several months to then tell us how the NIH is still considering what to do.

  5. More radio silence from the NIH, what a surprise (note the sarcasm). I had high hopes that Mike Lauer would address this issue when taking over for Sally Rockey, but I fear that this is just the same old bait and switch that the NIH has employed on this matter. In the 2012 biomedical workforce report the issue of benefits disparities for NRSA funded trainees was openly acknowledged by the NIH. The NIH funded community has been aware of this issue for a number of years and was happy to hear the NIH actually acknowledge this issue and assert that it would address the issue. Then came a long wait, 2 years, before the NIH took any action. This was the first sign that this was not a priority for the NIH. The action they did end up taking was to send out a poorly designed survey to University signing officials, not postdoc offices or benefits specialists, who would be more knowledgeable on the matter and more likely to respond. Then the NIH took a year and half to “analyze” the survey data, drawing only the most obvious conclusions that were already widely known, and not publishing the data the community was the most eager learn. The NIH released this meager data set in this blog post almost 5 months ago with statements inferring that the NIH would be looking to address this issue within the next several months. Its been several months and not a peep from the NIH. The lack of movement on this issue has made me lose all respect for the NIH. It shouldn’t take 4 years to fix this issue, and the fact that it has taken this long with no solutions posed just shows how broken the NIH really is and how little the NIH actually cares about the trainees it claims are so important to future of the biomedical workforce.

  6. Its been nearly 7 months and still no word from the NIH on the issue of fixing policies to allow for equalized benefits between NRSA postdoctoral fellows/trainees and their peers (postdocs on research project grants).

    Francis Collins indicated that the NIH will soon increase the NRSA stipend levels to be in compliance with the FLSA salary minimum threshold for exempt employees. This seems like an opportune time to make financial and policy changes to NRSA awards to allow for fellowship allowances to be used for fringe benefits and for the allowance amounts to be increased to what a typical employee fringe rate would be (~30%). Right now the NRSA fellowship allowance only amounts to around 20% of the stipend amount. The NIH should express explicitly in a policy memo that NRSA postdocs may be considered employees of their host institute and that their fellowship allowance can be used to cover the full suite of fringe benefits. Any action short of this by the NIH at this point would be ridiculous. This issue has existed for many many years and the NIH has acknowledged this as an issue 4 years ago. Its time for this to finally be corrected.

  7. “Over the next several months” has quickly turned in to almost a year, and still no update on this issue from the NIH. It would have been strategic of the NIH to address this issue when re-issuing the NRSA stipend levels to adjust to the new FLSA exemption salary floor. Is any hope of addressing this issue now dead or significantly delayed due to the increased stipend levels precipitated by the new FLSA salary minimum and subsequent increase in NRSA stipend levels? The biomedical research community, especially those on NRSA fellowships and training grants would really appreciate an update on this issue.

  8. “Several months” has turned into a year and a few months and still not a word from the NIH on this matter. The NIH should be ashamed. Ensuring that postdoc fellows on NIH training grants and fellowships are able to secure affordable health benefits through their host universities should have been a matter corrected a long long time ago. There is one solution – increase the individual fellowship/training grant allowances to match the fringe rate at a host university. The barrier is additional funds from the NIH. Essentially the NIH is more than willing to provide these fellowships and training grants, but they wash their hands on whether the Fellow is then treated like an employee or not and receives affordable health benefits at their host institutes. The NIH buried their heads in the sand on this matter for a long time, then changed course and actually collected some data in 2014. The NIH took a year to analyze the data. The data did not support their view that universities were taking good care of NRSA funded trainees (equal benefits), and so now they are just ignoring the data and moving on from this problem without ever solving it.

  9. Very disheartening to hear that NIH is doing nothing to address this issue. As a new postdoc, I am fortunate that I am initially being funded out of my PIs R01 and am hired as a regular employee, but there is only 1.5 years left on the grant. The tentative plan is to apply for a F32, but as someone who is a bit older and single, I need to look out for myself financially. I feel I may have to give up on my academic dreams because I can’t afford to make it through the postdoc phase.

    On another note, I cannot fathom how the NIH, of all places, thinks it is acceptable for trainees to go without subsidized health insurance. ACA is still alive, but who knows what the future will hold.

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