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Posts Tagged ‘postdocs

How to Make a Valuable Postdoctoral Experience: Updating the Model

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By: Aparna Kishor, MD, PhD

       To an outside observer, the scientific enterprise in the US appears to be thriving. The 2016 budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was $31.3 billion. Of this, about 80% was distributed to research projects performed extramurally, pointing to the fact that hundreds of thousands of researchers nationwide, established scientists as well as trainees, benefit from the funding. Although the numbers are somewhat murky, it is likely that over 50% of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers (postdocs) receive some federal funds.

A more granular view of the reality of modern scientific training reveals its true complexity. In The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited, a report on postdoctoral training in the US, the National Academies argue that there are serious issues in the way we train our young scientists today, including those having to do with recognition and compensation, mentorship, and career advising. Fundamentally, although the US has more postdocs than ever before, does this serve the individuals involved?

First some context. For those committed to a career in the biological sciences, the first stage of training is graduate study to acquire technical and field-specific skills, culminating in a PhD. Traditionally, the second is the postdoctoral stage, which provides additional technical experience and preparation for a future career, ideally culminating in a research position. In the US, approximately 65% of those with graduate degrees in the life sciences continue on to a postdoc which is the field with the highest rate of entry. The second highest is in the physical sciences, with only 50%. Although the quotidian experiences of the two may be similar, the graduate and postdoctoral stages are actually quite different, particularly since graduate training tends to have formal requirements and expectations while postdoctoral training, does not. This framework also has distinct benefits for the principle investigators (PIs). A major one is economic: junior scientists are a willing, and in the case of postdocs, highly trained, source of cheap labor (more on this below). On occasion, the work may be done at no cost to the PI if the trainee has funding from another source, although this is becoming proportionally less common.

When the postdoctoral arrangement was established in the early part of the 20th century, the training periods were typically 1-2 year stints in a lab to learn additional skills and consolidate connections in the field. After this, the young researcher would generally transition into an academic position. In the 1970’s, close to 55% of postdocs held tenure or tenure track faculty positions 6 years after completion of their graduate studies. Now, when a postdoc plans for his or her next career move, the situation is not so simple and this has aroused the concern of the National Academies. Partly, the difficulty is due to the number of available academic positions being outstripped by the number of postdocs in the pipeline. Data from 2006 show that only 33% of postdocs had faculty positions 6 years after graduate school and only half of those were tenured or tenure-track. The rest of the explanation lies in the fact that the landscape of the scientific enterprise has evolved.

Most obviously, the demographics of the postdoc community are markedly different from those in the early 20th century resulting in different needs for trainees. As of 2014, women were receiving close to 50% of all life science doctorates awarded in the US. Gender parity at graduation has not carried through to the faculty level (where only approximately 25% of tenured faculty are women). Among the many potential causes for this decline, one is that many women leave the academic track due to the challenges in balancing a career with raising a family. Nonetheless, there are more women at all levels in the sciences than before, indicating that retention may be increased by supporting women during the time that their children are young. Holders of temporary visas comprise another important population, but there are very few concrete data pertaining to them. They obtain close to 25% of all doctorates in the biological sciences, and 80% of those who have jobs after graduation stay in the US. With this, there is significant flux into the system at the postdoc level. As a result, upwards of a third of all biomedical postdocs in the US are foreign nationals primarily from India and China. Since these people have never been counted, the best way to help them meet their goals and the role they play in the US scientific arena are undefined.

Another important change is that postdoctoral training periods have lengthened from 1-2 years to around 4 years. For those who want the training, this timeline extension is believed to be a necessary sacrifice in order to gain entry into the competitive world of academia. Unsurprisingly, the percentage of PIs under 36 has fallen from 18% from 1980 to 3% in 2010. For established investigators, the longer training times are advantageous. Postdoc salaries at research institutions generally amount to less than the combined tuition-plus-stipend package offered to graduate students. After a few years, a postdoc may conduct research at a level equivalent to that of permanent scientific staff but at a fraction of the cost – postdocs pull in anywhere from $40,000 to $49,000 a year, while staff will have full benefits and a salary closer to $80,000 a year. Given this, the challenge is to make a prolonged training period valuable, feasible, and non-exploitative for all who choose it.

Finally, there is growing evidence that a postdoc may not be the right choice for everyone. Most junior scientists feel limited by the now-classic dichotomy between pursuing research in academia and industry. The reality is that many other career options exist, although some are a step or two removed from pure research. These are in areas like consulting, intellectual property, and science policy. Some jobs will provide entry-level incomes greater than a postdoc, and may even lead to career prospects that are more secure than that in research. Entry level salaries for some careers in industry begin at $70,000 and mean salaries in industry can be $40,000 more than that in academia, and the age at first non-academic job is lower than that for academics. Critically, for those wishing to optimize some of these other aspects of their professional advancement, a postdoc may be unnecessary.

Taken together, these developments indicate a need to change the culture surrounding the postdoc. The essence of the National Academies’ recommendation to improve the postdoctoral experience is that the entire scientific community must treat it as a valuable training opportunity instead of basic employment. To this end, the minimum postdoctoral salary should be increased, even beyond the current $47,484.  The improved economics for trainees will have a number of benefits: it will place more value on these individuals, limit the number of postdocs an investigator may hire, perhaps encourage more women to stay in research, and make positions more competitive, lessening their use as a default employment option. Postdocs should also be encouraged to receive individual funds as proof of independence. There is some evidence that postdocs on their own fellowships are more satisfied than those funded by their lab, although it seems likely that people more committed to a career as a researcher are the ones most likely to apply for fellowships. Additionally, those who receive early career grants are more likely to receive independent investigator grants and faculty appointments. Finally, there is an argument for more staff positions as a measure to keep postdoctoral opportunities as dedicated training experiences.

For now, it is important for each researcher to decide whether it is in his or her best interest to embark on the postdoctoral route. Fortunately, career advising is increasingly available to trainees at all levels and the NIH and other groups have issued mentorship guidelines for postdocs. Overall, the entire scientific community must assist in returning value to a postdoc and in meaningful career development for all trainees.

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March 10, 2017 at 9:56 am

Science Policy Around the Web – September 23, 2016

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By: Emily Petrus, PhD

Source: pixabay

Biomedical Research

BRAIN Initiative might get a global boost

While politicians met at the UN General Assembly in New York this week, another meeting of a more scientific variety was going on nearby at Rockefeller University. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) hosted a meeting to organize neuroscientists from across the globe to develop new ideas to organize their field of research. The US BRAIN initiative was launched in 2013 as an effort to study key issues in neuroscience, such as how the brain connects and functions at the cellular and systems levels. Worldwide, other countries have similar initiatives in place or in planning, thus NSF wanted to get a feel of how data and resources could be shared between scientists regardless of country. For example, Japan and China are investing heavily in primate research, while America and Europe tend to shy away from these organisms, but put more focus on basic research and clinical applications.

One problem that neuroscientists encounter as they compare research findings is differences in data acquisition and processing, with each lab having their own in-house protocols and analyses. A global repository of data with access to super computers and/or powerful microscopes for all could be a boon for how neuroscience research of the future is performed. Other researchers voiced concerns over the possibility that a global project would re-direct funds from local and national sources. This new neuroscience “club” could also create yet another economic hurdle for developing nations’ scientists to overcome.

Politicians at the UN General Assembly voiced their support for an International Brain Initiative, and were met by cautious enthusiasm from neuroscientists. Time will tell if a truly global approach to neuroscience materializes, but political and financial support for neuroscience research makes this an exciting time to be a scientist. (Sara Reardon, Nature)

2016 Presidential Elections

How do the candidates stack up on science?

With the first presidential debate scheduled for Monday, September 26, our nation continues a heated election season with two powerful candidates. Although science is generally low on the priority list for the voting public, it remains an integral part of how our educated nation works. Research influences broad issues in public policy, and policy influences how science gets funded and moves forward.

The candidates have some points of agreement and points of contention for various scientific topics. For example, both Trump and Clinton support NASA and space exploration, although Trump is more eager for a private sector endeavor. Both Trump and Clinton support vaccines in children, with Trump having some reservations, but for other issues of public health such as funding for biomedical research, Clinton has clear proposals for increasing funding, while Trump seems more skeptical than supportive of funding NIH.

Neither candidate has voiced strong opinions on the use of genetically modified foods. However, Clinton does support food labeling, citing a “right to know”, while the Republican Party opposes making labels mandatory. In addition, neither candidate has made a clear statement about gun research; while Clinton has proposed many changes to gun control, Trump supports a right to carry at the national level. Improving Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education is a topic about which Clinton is passionate, while Trump’s stance is less clear. He maintains that education should be on a locally managed level, which means geography would impact the availability of quality STEM programs.

The strongest point of contention is regarding climate change, where Clinton proposes creating clean energy jobs and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, while Trump considers climate change a hoax and vowed to use American-produced natural gas and oil and reverse the EPA’s moratorium on new coal mining permits.

Overall the candidates have said little regarding these top scientific issues, but based on what they have said in the past, there are certain issues they agree on, while others are divisive in both politics and for the general public. (Science News Staff, ScienceNews)

Biomedical Training

It’s postdoc appreciation week!

In 2009 the US House of Representatives officially declared a week of appreciation for the forces which move scientific research: the postdoc. Postdoctoral fellows/researchers (postdocs) are research scientists who have completed a PhD and continue their training under a more established principle investigator in order to expand their research experience and launch their careers. The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) pioneered the celebrations in 2010, giving postdocs perks such as career fairs, ice cream socials, and free tickets to local events. Although some of these perks may seem superficial, the larger goal of this week is to bring attention to the plight of these mid-career scientists.

Recently postdocs have been an increasingly vocal part of the research community, as their numbers swell and job prospects appear bleak. Under the organization of the NPA, postdocs have won increases in stipend (pay) levels dictated by the NIH. The NPA has also provided recommendations, information and guidance to the White House and other policy branches of the government. Their goals are to enhance postdoctoral training experiences and opportunities for postdocs in academic and government research settings. The US is placing more focus on getting students to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, however biomedical PhDs are being produced at an unsustainable rate for academia, government and industry to employ. By celebrating postdoc appreciation week, the focus is briefly shifted to the other end of the pipeline, where conditions must improve if more people are to be inspired to join at the entry point.

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September 23, 2016 at 3:29 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – May 31, 2016

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By: Emily Petrus, Ph.D.

Biomedical Research Salaries

Higher Salary for Postdocs Coming Soon

What do a Metrobus driver and a recent biomedical PhD graduate in have in common? Their salary! Although both positions are important to keeping society moving forward, figuratively or literally speaking, one can imagine the disparity between the educational time commitment between these two positions.

New rules set forth by the US Department of Labor dictate that employees with annual salaries falling below $47,476 must be paid overtime for hours they work beyond 40 hours per week.  Research scientists who have recently (typically within 5 years) received a PhD in biomedical sciences will undergo additional training before the next step in their career, similar to residency among medical school graduates.  These highly skilled postdoctoral researchers are called postdocs, and they fall below this threshold, with an average starting salary of $45,000.

This gives research organizations such as academic universities and the National Institutes of Health two options: track the hours their postdocs log at the bench and pay them overtime, or raise the base salary above the threshold.  Because scientific research rarely falls neatly into a 9-5 time table, NIH director Francis Collins is leading the NIH to increase postdoc pay to avoid logging hours for overtime pay.  Most academic research labs follow NIH guidelines for postdoc salary, so the NIH’s commitment to increase their pay should spill over into most other areas of biomedical research.  In a recent article penned by Collins and Thomas Perez, the U.S. Secretary of Labor, they called on the nation to “embrace the fact that increasing the salary threshold for postdocs represents an opportunity to encourage more of our brightest young minds to consider choosing careers in science.”

Although these salary increases will increase the pressure on labs already struggling with tight funding, it may serve as an incentive for future generations to choose biomedical research careers over driving a Metrobus. (Beryl Lieff Benderly, Science Articles)

Chemical Safety

United States poised to approve major chemical safety overhaul

Did you know that companies can use new chemicals in their products without demonstrating their safety for consumers or the environment? How about that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot ask them to remove it until they demonstrate toxicity, which requires a costly amount of research and legislative action? If this sounds backwards to you, take heart: the House of Representatives has approved a long overdue overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  This measure is expected to be approved by the Senate and President Obama with the next few months.

The TSCA was originally passed in 1976, and contains wording difficult for environmentalists, consumers, and even industry to follow. The original act required the EPA to consider regulatory costs during safety review, effectively reducing the importance of science-based research into chemical safety for consumers and the environment while favoring regulatory cost saving measures. It also made toxicity testing difficult by the EPA by requiring the minimal (“least burdensome”) amount of testing instead of full-fledged studies. The new TSCA will enable the EPA to order companies to prove chemicals are safe for consumers and/or the environment before introducing them to the marketplace, to hopefully avoid another issue such as the widespread use of asbestos in construction until the 1970’s.

Other components of the revised TSCA include an emphasis on reducing numbers of animals used in toxicity studies by replacing them with other testing methods when possible. The act also aims to identify and increase studies on “cancer clusters,” areas of the country which have higher incidences of cancer which may be due to environmental effects.

The revision of the TSCA is arguably the biggest environmental legislative success since the Clean Air Act amendment of the 1990’s. By containing clearer language, it makes the act “a careful compromise that’s good for consumers, good for jobs, and good for the environment” – said John Shimkus (R-IL). (Puneet Kollipara, ScienceInsider)

Mental Health

Children in Poverty at Risk for Increased Incidence of Mental Health Issues

Is it the chicken or the egg?  When it comes to mental health and poverty, it can be difficult to determine causation versus correlation: are mentally unstable people unable to provide for themselves, or is the stress of poverty causing mental health issues?  A recent study in children has determined a third genetic component to the puzzle, related to how the structure of DNA differs between poor and healthy children.

Although it has long been known that children from families below the poverty line have increased incidences of mental and physical ailments such as depression and diabetes, many have pointed to environmental factors such as relatives smoking or poor nutrition as the main culprits. New evidence suggests exposure to stress in utero and during childhood changes the very DNA of these children. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter important for maintaining “happy” brain chemistry and is often targeted for treating depression. New researchers found that the DNA for a serotonin transporter protein is altered in poor children, which may decrease the amount of serotonin allowed to get into brain cells. This was also correlated with higher levels of stress, indicating that growing up in poverty can change fundamental biological components and create lifetime mental health issues for these children.

Growing up in poverty is stressful for children; however there are ways to attenuate their suffering.  High quality, affordable, preschool and childcare is one way the government can step up to the plate.  “Headstart” is a program which enables children of families below the federal poverty line to enjoy a stimulating, warm environment and may reduce the burden of their families to choose between working and providing for their families or staying home to avoid daycare expenses. There are a multitude of issues creating stressful environments for poor families, but providing high quality child care and healthy meals for kids for part of the day is a small investment towards a big, epigenetic payoff in generations to come. (Sara Reardon, Nature News)

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May 31, 2016 at 12:00 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – July 24, 2015

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By: Julia Shaw, Ph.D.

Photo credit: reynaldodallin via pixabay.

Environment and climate change policy

At Vatican, Mayors Pledge Climate Change Fight

On Tuesday, approximately 60 mayors from around the globe gathered for a two-day conference convened in Vatican City. The Vatican organized the conference in order to encourage grass-roots action in support of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, “Laudato Si,” which calls on everyone to recognize the dangers of environmental degradation and climate change and to take action politically, economically, and culturally to protect the earth and those most-afflicted by development. With a view to the upcoming global summit on climate change planned for this December, the mayors declared they would pressure world leaders to accept a “bold climate agreement that confines global warming to a limit safe for humanity, while protecting the poor and vulnerable from ongoing climate change that gravely endangers their lives.” The mayors themselves recognized their own power as well. Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York stated, “We, the local leaders of the world, have many tools, more than we may have in fact realized, and we must use them boldly even as our national governments hesitate.” Mayors can often pass regulations to make buildings more energy efficient, encourage mass transit, recycling, and “green” thinking. Governor Jerry Brown of California called-out denialists, saying they were attempting to “falsify the scientific record” and stressed that “political and business leaders are not taking climate change seriously enough.” In their concluding declaration on Tuesday, the group recognized human-induced climate change as a “scientific reality” and declared ameliorating climate change a “moral imperative for humanity.” In order to more effectively deal with climate change, Gov. Brown acknowledged, “We need a moral dimension . . . and Pope Francis is providing that.” Pope Francis addressed the attendants saying, “We can’t separate man from all else. There is a mutual impact.” In closing, the pope expressed optimism for the future and subtly challenged the local leaders to continue to pressure for change saying, “I have great hopes for the Paris summit in December.” (Gaia Pianigiani, The New York Times)

Biomedical research training

Society asks NIH to act now to lessen biomed scientist glut

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) recently published eight suggestions to deal with the excess of young biomedical scientists being groomed for a prohibitively small pool of academic research positions. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the study is the result of the analysis of nine previous reports containing over 200 recommendations issued by a variety of scientific groups. Not surprisingly, they call for a larger and more stable budget for the NIH and fewer administrative regulations for researchers. They go on to recommend an increase in postdoc salaries; limited financial support for graduate students and postdocs (restricted to 5 years each); a reliance on fewer temporary trainees in favor of more permanent staff scientists; and urge a reversal of the trend to support more graduate students and postdocs on research grants instead of fellowships and training grants. However, Sally Rockey, NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research, warned about the effect an increase in postdoc wages could have on the overall research grant budget. In terms of the length of graduate and post-graduate training, she noted that NIH training grants and fellowships are capped at five years and that most graduate students earn their Ph.D. in fewer than 7 years anyway. Additionally, the NIH restricts eligibility for their K99/R00 awards, grants designed to transition from postdoc training into an independent research career, to applicants with less than 4 years of postdoc training. Rockey further cautions that shifting graduate students and postdocs currently on research grants to training grants would “ not be practical or feasible, at least in the short term” and that non-U.S. citizens or those who are not permanent residents (which equates to nearly 25% of graduate students and 50% of postdocs) are not currently eligible for training awards. However ASMB representative Chris Pickett and others suggest coordinated actions like simultaneously creating incentives to hire staff scientists while increasing postdoc salaries or supporting training grants for small as well as large institutions to ensure smaller schools are not disadvantaged in a shift away from research grant to training grant support. ASBMB hopes to follow-up by gathering authors of some of the reports, industry and advocacy leaders to “hammer out a defined advocacy plan” and consensus that will “give NIH the OK to move forward.” (Jocelyn Kaiser, Science Insider)

Health policy and education

Standing desks at schools: The solution to the childhood obesity epidemic?

An increasing number of schools are testing the use of standing desks in the classroom. Technically most are “stand-biased desks” that include stools at standing height. The goal is to get kids, who may spend 65-70% of their day sitting, moving more throughout the day. This could be a simple way to combat the growing obesity epidemic in the United States, improve cardiovascular health, reduce risk of type 2 diabetes, and help transform classrooms into “activity-permissive environments.” Studies in Britain and Australia found that students with standing desks had about a 10% decrease in sitting time that carried over to time outside of the school day. A study in the American Journal of Public Health found that 1st graders with standing desks burned 17% more calories than those at sitting desks, and effect that was even more significant for overweight children who burned 32% more calories. Furthermore, surveys indicate standing desks are well liked by parents, teachers, and students alike. Mark Benden, a professor at Texan A&M University and published author on the topic, wrote a commentary for The Conversation noting that sufficient physical activity directly impacts one’s ability to focus on challenging cognitive tasks. According to Benden, “Children become more restless and distracted with prolonged sitting. Active workstations reduce behavior problems and increase students’ attention by providing them with a different method for completing academic tasks and breaking up the monotony of seated work.” Thus standing desks could theoretically benefit children both physically and mentally. (Ariana Eunjung Cha, The Washington Post)

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July 24, 2015 at 9:00 am

Invisible No More: Making Progress on Policies for Postdoctoral Training

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By: Sylvina Raver, Ph.D.

The biomedical research enterprise in the United States is in trouble. Recent unprecedented volatility in federal research funding has prompted the biomedical workforce to grow at a faster pace than the number of available research positions. Funding booms, such as those that occurred in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, enabled research institutions to train more young scientists, while simultaneously increasing the dependence of the entire research structure upon external federal funding. Subsequent funding cuts, as have occurred since 2003, cause the research system to contract and force young investigators into a saturated employment market after they complete their training. This workforce imbalance is a key driver of the hyper-competitive environment that now permeates the entire biomedical research endeavor and has prompted scientific leaders and professional societies, such as the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), to call the current state of US research “unsustainable,” and demand “immediate attention and action” to address its flaws.

Postdoctoral researchers, or postdocs, are vital to the research enterprise, as they perform much of the nation’s research, train junior scientists, and write grant applications and publications. Postdoctoral training conforms to an apprenticeship model in which postdocs are trained in the image of their mentor (the PI) and are expected to devote all of their effort toward conducting lab research. However, recent accounts suggest that only 15% of postdocs will go on to head a research lab. PI’s often lack knowledge about career trajectories outside of academia, and many universities and research institutions do not offer professional development for careers other than in research. The length of postdoctoral appointments has steadily increased, indicating that postdocs are struggling to find suitable positions after completing their training. Indeed, the average age at which a new investigator in the United States lands a tenure-track academic position is now 37 years old.

Despite the crucial role that postdocs play in the research community, they have long been considered an “invisible university”, as data on their numbers and career outcomes have not been well-documented. Around 30,800 to 63,400 postdocs are estimated to be currently pursuing science, health, or engineering research in the US. However, these estimates are grossly inaccurate, as these numbers do not include postdocs employed outside of academia, those training in the humanities, or postdocs with doctorates from non-US universities who may represent as much as 60% of the population. Postdocs often exist in a nebulous realm between employment categories and can thus find themselves without many benefits, such as health insurance or retirement contributions, afforded to other employees with comparable credentials and experience.

The National Postdoctoral Association’s (NPA) 2014 Institutional Policy Report revealed a typical postdoc in the US today is a scientist in their early to mid 30’s: who is likely a foreign citizen with a temporary visa, who holds their appointment for 5-6 years, is paid the minimum NIH National Research Service Award (NRSA) recommended stipend of $42,000, and who may be offered professional development only for a research career. Given the likelihood that postdocs will find a career away from the bench, training in skills relevant to an expanded sphere of employment is crucial.

The NPA is dedicated to improving the postdoc experience through education, advocacy, and community building. It convenes an annual meeting to pursue this mission in coordination with individual postdocs, Postdoctoral Associations (PDAs), Postdoctoral Offices (PDOs) and other organizations that share a stake in postdoctoral training. The 2015 meeting was held from March 13-15, during which attendees discussed pressing issues affecting the postdoc community and the biomedical research enterprise, and identified possible solutions to many of these challenges. While PDAs and PDO’s strive to enact the NPA’s recommendations at their home institutions, the NPA is actively consulting with national agencies, including the NIH, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Academy of Sciences, on policy decisions that affect the entire postdoc community. Ongoing NPA advocacy efforts include proposed “increases for NIH training stipends, requirement for mentoring plans on NIH grants, more independent funding for postdocs, and increased data collection on postdocs, including tracking outcomes” (page 4 of the NPA’s 2014 Institutional Policy Report).

The NPA is not alone in its efforts, and through coordination with other groups, significant progress for postdocs has been made. A follow-up to a 2000 National Academies’ report titled, The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited, notes many major achievements. For example, the NPA’s creation in 2003 has provided a unified voice for the postdoc community, and more research institutions are participating in the NPA’s National Postdoc Appreciation Week, which recognizes postdocs’ efforts. Many universities are creating designated offices to better serve postdocs’ needs. The NSF now requires research proposals that include plans for hiring a postdoc to also include plans for mentorship. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has developed myIDP, an online tool that helps postdocs better understand available career options and helps them create individual development plans to better inform career decisions.

Despite these achievements, the 2014 National Academies report outlines six interconnected recommendations for improving postdoctoral training that will require concerted and coordinated efforts at all levels of the research enterprise for successful implementation:

  1. Period of Service: limit postdoc appointments to 5 years, barring extraordinary circumstances,
  2. Title and Role: reserve the title of “Postdoctoral Researcher” only for those requiring advanced research training,
  3. Career Development: expose graduate students to non-academic career paths in their first year of training, and explain that postdocs are only for those wishing to continue in research,
  4. Compensation and Benefits of Employment: raise the NIH NRSA postdoc starting salary to $50,000, annually adjust it for inflation, and provide the same benefits to postdocs that are provided to equivalent full-time employees,
  5. Mentoring: encourage host institutions and funding agencies to urge postdocs to seek advice from multiple mentors; hold institutions accountable for evaluating the quality of mentorship,
  6. Data Collection: maintain a database that tracks postdoctoral researchers, including non-academic and foreign-trained postdocs.

The venerated reputation of National Academy members lends credibility and political clout to these policy recommendations. However, some young investigators are eager to take more active roles in the future of the research enterprise. In October 2014, a team of Boston area postdocs held a symposium titled, “The Future of Research”. This event included workshops that elicited the opinions of postdoc and graduate student participants on “problems and solutions surrounding training, the structure of the research workforce, funding, and incentives and rewards in science.” A report of this event was quickly made available and distilled many ideas discussed during this symposium into three overarching recommendations:

  • Increase connectivity between junior scientists and other stakeholders
  • Increase transparency of career outcomes for postdocs and expectations for individual postdoctoral appointments
  • Increase investment in junior scientists to allow for greater independence at this stage of training

The Future of Research organization provides resources for those interested in convening similar symposia to engage their local postdoc communities.

            The challenges faced by the postdoctoral research community are complex and require coordination among all stakeholders to remedy. Although postdocs may feel as though they toil in the background of the research enterprise, it is encouraging to know that organizations such as the NPA, the National Academies, PDAs, PDOs, and grassroots assemblies of postdocs are working daily to enact meaningful change.

Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 26, 2015 at 9:00 am

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Science Policy Around the Web – December 23, 2014

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By: Agila Somasundaram, Ph.D.

photo credit: pennstatenews via photopin cc

Workforce Development – Federal Policy

Yes, you can attend that career event, says the U.S. government

Whether a graduate student or a postdoc aspires to hold an academic position, or transition to a career away from the bench, developing skills other than those required at the bench are important. However, some principal investigators express reservations about sending their trainees to career development events; they consider it breaking the law, since they believe that federally funded trainees are meant to be doing research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation, and several other agencies approached the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) requesting a policy clarification, which has resulted in the Council on Financial Assistance Reform (under the U.S. OMB) stating that graduate students and postdocs, even when supported by federal funds, are authorized to spend time away from the lab to develop career-related skills, since they hold “dual roles” as trainees and employees. Vanderbilt University postdoc, Lindsey Morris, says that without specialized career training, “you get to the end of your postdoc, and what do you do? You haven’t spent any time building those really critical career development skills, and you’re left without a job.” Though the OMB statement does not specifically state how much time a trainee can spend on career-related activities outside of lab, the guidelines “say very clearly that trainees are permitted to go and seek these opportunities. … You cannot misunderstand the language. There are no two ways of interpreting it”, says Ambika Mathur, Dean of the graduate school at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. How the clarification and its implementation play out will be closely monitored over the next few years, to determine if further modifications are needed, says Michelle Bulls, director of the NIH Office of Policy for Extramural Research Administration, who worked on the statement. She says, “It will take about 3 years to figure out if this is good, bad, or indifferent.” (Rachel Bernstein, Science)


Stem Cells

European court clears way for stem-cell patents

The European Court of Justice ruled on December 18 that human embryonic stem (ES) cells made from unfertilized eggs can be patented, on the basis that these cells lack the capacity to develop into a human being. These cells are created through parthenogenesis, a form of asexual reproduction in some animals, but one that does not result in normal development in humans. This ruling counters the general ban imposed by the court in 2011, banning patents on human ES cells. The original ruling banned patents that involved destroying cells capable of forming human embyros, as well as patents on ES cells made from unfertilized eggs. The ruling had met with opposition from many scientists. “We have known for a very long time that parthenogenetic embryos are not capable of developing very far after implantation”, says Robin Lovell-Badge, a stem-cell scientist at the National Institute for Medical Research in London. In a press release, the European court said: “The mere fact that a parthenogenetically-activated human ovum commences a process of development is not sufficient for it to be regarded as a human embryo.” A couple of patents filed by the International Stem Cell Corporation, a biotechnology company in Carlsbad, California, for methods to generate corneal tissues from ES cells made from egg cells, had been rejected by the UK, and now it’s up to the UK courts to decide if these cells are eligible for patent protection. The ruling “is generally good news”, says Clara Sattler de Sousa e Brito, lawyer based in Munich, Germany. She adds that though it opens up space to argue that human ES cells obtained from other methods like cloning, are not capable of developing into a human being, and thus should be patentable, arguing scientifically that ES cells from spare human embryos do not have this capability would be harder. (Ewen Callaway and Alison Abbott, Nature)


Environmental Policy

The Arctic keeps warming, and polar bears are feeling the heat

 The air temperatures in the Arctic are increasing twice as fast as temperatures in the lower latitudes, says a federal report, released on Wednesday, co-authored by sixty-three scientists from thirteen countries. The report was peer reviewed by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program of the Arctic Council and released in San Francisco at an annual gathering of the American Geophysical Union. The effect of the Arctic temperature rise, a result of global warming, can be seen in many different places. Alaska has recorded temperatures nearly 20 degrees higher than the January average. The amount of snow in Eurasia in April was at its lowest since 1979, and snow in June in North America was the third lowest on record. “Snow disappeared three to four weeks earlier than normal in western Russia, Scandinavia, the Canadian sub-Arctic and western Alaska due to below average accumulation in winter and above normal spring temperature,” said Jacqueline A. Richter-Menge, a senior research engineer for NOAA’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory. Geoff York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bears International, wrote that the polar bear population declined from about 1,200 to 800 in the western Hudson Bay area of Canada between 1987 and 2011, though there might be some good news for bears in other parts of the Arctic. Overall, the findings from this report highlight an observation made by University of Virginia environmental professor Howard Epstein last year: “The Arctic is not like Vegas. What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.” (Darryl Fears, The Washington Post)



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Written by sciencepolicyforall

December 23, 2014 at 12:34 pm