Models of Support for Staff Scientist Positions-Matching Funds?

Apr 14 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Lots of interesting ideas coming in to my previous post on models of support for staff scientist positions.

Let me add an idea into the mix. Suppose that NIH were to develop a training grant-like mechanism for staff scientists with additional conditions:

(1) No more than XX% of the salary and benefits of each staff scientist position can be supported from the grant with additional funds coming from other grants or institutional funds.

(2) Any staff scientist supported from the grant is guaranteed full support for a period of YY years after the termination of the grant by the institution.

For the purposes of discussion, set XX% = 50% and YY = 2. The idea is to have both NIH and the institution have substantial "skin in the game" with the staff scientists and their positions as the beneficiaries.

As a disclaimer, I do not know enough about the legal framework that could influence how the details of this plan.



23 responses so far

  • qaz says:

    Guaranteeing full support for a period of YY years after the termination of a grant is a very interesting idea worth pursuing in general. Imagine if grants ran 5+2 years, so every 5 years you renew the grant, but you have a guaranteed two years to do it. I suppose in practice you should be doing grant renewal after 3 years (so grants are 3+2), but 3 years is kind of too short to get good productivity measures and (I think) most study sections would look askance at a grant renewal coming in after year 3.

  • dsc says:

    Getting universities/research institutes to have "skin in the game" is a noble goal, but would they would take on staff scientists under these conditions? It sounds like a difficult plan to administer and the positions remain grant dependent and temporary. This sounds more like postdoc plus than a career path. Have I missed something?

  • drugmonkey says:

    As with all "skin in the game" plans it lacks recognition that Universities have no willingness to put such skin in this particular game and that most may not have the skin to put anywhere.

    This continued operation of the discussion in Magical Unicorn Fairy Leprechaun Gold fantasy land is infuriating.

    Any discussion of research stability that does not assume zero sum is immediately laughable. Sorry, but it is true.

    • dsc says:

      In a revenue neutral approach, I would start by redirect money from graduate training grants. This will cause universities to dial back the number of students they accept, which also helps deal with future bottlenecks.

    • datahound says:

      This approach does not necessarily represent a non-zero sum game approach. If NIH were to require substantial matching funds, institutions would have to consider whether they want to apply or not. If they did receive an award, they would have to commit the resources. Depending on the structure of the program, this could be a commitment of funds (which would limit what else they could do) or be a guarantee of funds if necessary (commitment to risk but not necessarily funds in the short term).

      I hope this discussion is not laughable. My goal is to think get folks thinking about alternative models and what their upsides and downsides are to prepare for further discussions.

      • dsc says:

        Good subtile point. Commitment of funds I understand; set aside money for a specific purpose. In principle I understand guarantee of funds as well, but where I am fuzzy is how NIH and universities view financial leveraging, which is what the guarantee is. How much are institutions allowed to guarantee beyond in place revenue? For example, if the odds table say they have to pay out 1 of 3 guarantees and have projected but not dedicated funds to pay for 3 guarantees can they take on 9 positions? When called upon to pay this guarantee is it paid through departmental funds, university endowment, some other source? What is the result of failure to make good on a guarantee?

      • drugmonkey says:

        WHAT. MATCHING. FUNDS??????????????????!!!!!!

        • UCProf says:

          DM, at a large university many different funds exist.

          I've seen a dean bitch and moan about not having money to pay for an admin that a BSD needs for a matching offer, then cough it up. I found out later the dean wanted to hire an event planner with that.

          The idea would be to put pressure on these deans to set their priorities to devote money to research staff scientists instead of event planners.

          It seems reasonable to me. If some places don't have the matching funds, they would be at a disadvantage.

  • SteveTodd says:

    Aren't all positions temporary? Unless you are advocating for tenure for staff scientists I don't know how you get more job security than the 6 or 7 years that this would afford. I think the real problem comes after 2 cycles of being a staff scientist when the grant doesn't get renewed. Now you have done a PhD (5 years), a postdoc (5 years), and have 12-14 years of staff scientist under your belt. Who can afford you at this point?

  • Morgan Price says:

    I see it as zero sum and it looks to me like there are too many biomedical grad students so that is the obvious thing to cut. It might be wiser to fund grad students via training grants rather than R01s, though, so I'd cut tuition reimbursement on R01s.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    DH - I don't favor this proposal for 3 reasons:

    1) To some extent, this is already covered by CTSAs, which already tend to be (IMHO) wasteful, inefficient, and anti-progressive.

    2) To some extent, this proposal has a bit of a Rube Goldberg feel to it.

    3) This does not remove the fact that "trainees" are half the price and many PIs feel that is all they can afford on a modular R01 budget.

    Until & unless #3 is dealt with, the entire pyramid scheme will continue, with either domestic or imported "students" and "postdocs" as permitted.

    I wish that Collins, Varmus, Tilghman, et al. would have the vision and the courage to publicly admit that we are facing an emergency, akin to the housing crisis (very similar if you think about the structural unsustainability). They could then ask for a short-term emergency fund, coupled with a long-term structural reform plan, to phase out "trainees" as a source of cheap labor and to enhance the modular R01 to fund a normal adult workforce.

    • drugmonkey says:

      This is something I could get behind. I like the idea of the bailout and structural reform link.

    • BugDoc says:

      Agree 100%, N-c. I don't think this will happen very soon though. Trying to phase out or control numbers of trainees is a topic that deeply divides the faculty. The idea that Tilghman and others have suggested, i.e., that the structure of the lab as we know it will have to change (smaller, fewer trainees, more staff), doesn't resonate with the empire builders.

      It's unclear why NIH can't implement a gradual switch over to trainees only being paid from training grants. Not saying it would be easy, but it seems like it would be possible with some careful thought. Over time, phase in more training grant slots for students and postdoc and phase out trainees on research grants. Faculty will have to hire staff scientists (some at PhD level, some at M.S. or B.S. level) because they won't have any other choice. If universities want to train more students and postdocs, they will have to show that they are very good at training to get more slots on TG or they will have to get their institution to commit hard money to support the trainees. If faculty want to attract these TG supported students and postdocs, they will have to work to recruit them.

  • Established PI says:

    Neuro-C's last paragraph sums up my view, too. We don't need yet another funding mechanism or more central planning from the NIH; we need structural changes that make staff scientists a viable option with standard grant mechanisms while removing incentives to exploit postdocs and students as cheap labor. Institutions that truly want to remain competitive will have to do their part to attract and maintain a pool of talented staff scientists, research associates - whatever you want to call real jobs with real benefits.

  • physioprof says:

    Sorry, but I don't get any of this nonsense at all. Why are scientists supposed to be such special snowflakes in our neoliberal capitalist economy that they are entitled to this kind of career stability that doesn't exist anywhere else? If minor league baseball players would read these whiny blogge threads, they'd spit tobacco juice all over them.

    In any kind of winner-takes-all profession--like academic science, sports, music, acting, writing, modeling, etc--there are floods of really driven talented people who want in and are willing to work their asses off even though they know that their chances of ultimately winning--making it to the major leagues, becoming a rock star, getting a tenure-track faculty position, etc--are small. They are willing to try, because when they multiply the rewards of winning by the likelihood of winning, they are comfortable with that expected payoff.

    The problem with academic biomedical science right now is that both the likelihood of winning *and* the rewards of winning are sharply lower than they used to be, and continuing that downwards trend. The solution isn't to devote resources to provide "soft landings" and "stability" to losers in this process. The solution is to improve both the likelihood of winning and the rewards of winning a tenure-track faculty position. This means funding more R01s with ample budgets so that universities hire more tenure-track faculty and those tenure-track faculty can reasonably expect to be able to sustain their research programs.

    • KateOCG says:

      I think this analogy leaves out the important distinction that future STEM students were sent a very different message than future baseball players. For example, from "Now more than ever, the American economy needs a workforce that is skilled, adaptable, creative, and equipped for success in the global marketplace." This type of encouragement sends the clear message that a successful career awaits those (or at least a reasonable subset of those) who follow our advice and obtain STEM degrees. In my opinion, those of us doing the encouraging have a responsibility to be open and transparent about our reasons and the career prospects of those who heed our advice.

      • KateOCG says:

        Left out a critical part of the STEM goals: "setting a trajectory of producing one million additional STEM degrees over the next decade, as recently recommended by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology."

    • datahound says:

      Physioprof: My main interest in staff scientist positions relates to decoupling research activity from the production of more PhD scientists and postdocs in need of careers that take advantage of this training. The figure that I posted of biological sciences PhD production ( ) demonstrated the the number of PhDs produced increased dramatically at the end of the NIH "doubling". Suppose that the NIH budget were to increase substantially in future years. It would seem to me that applying a substantial portion of these research funds to staff scientists rather than trainees would avoid further inflating the bubble.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    So there's two problems with your analogy.
    The first is that society has a vested interest in promoting the accumulation of scientific knowledge and maintaining a technically skilled workforce that goes above and beyond its interest in maintaining other high-risk/high-reward career paths. Winner-take-all arenas are fine for selecting the nepotistic and egotistical to put on TV, slightly less good when your goal is generating accurate scientific information for the use of industry and the general populace.

    The second is that most of these proposals are not about providing "soft landings" for former trainees who didn't make the cut. PhD unemployment is not a problem. They are about providing a structural stability to the workforce which is lacking. And the real problem is threefold. When labs fold, or trainees leave the country/scientific workforce, the NIH has received a limited return on its investment relative to what it could have gotten for the money. Secondly, the limited stability and high risk discourage talented and capable people from entering the pipeline. Medical schools constantly get the most academically high achieving students in part because the profession they lead to is renowned for stability.
    So your proposal addresses these first two, though not in a way I find particularly satisfactory because the third issue is that, the way the current system is structured, it is inherently unstable. Every injection of cash at the top breeds the indoctrination of more trainees, which necessitates either more cash, or a Thunderdome. You have to reduce the number of trainees in the pipeline. One way to do this is to give them decent paying jobs that don't lead to a TT position. This has the benefit of easing the postdoc holding pen without overly compromising the workforce.

  • DJMH says:

    I'm like a broken record here, but the percent of the NIH budget devoted to R01-equivalents in the last 17 years has dropped by 25% (from 48% to 37% of the total budget, ie a 25% drop in R01-devoted budget fraction). Fix that, and a lot of the stability problems will ease. New mechanisms are not the solution.

  • physioprof says:

    You have given no justification for why the winner-takes-all "Thunderdome" system doesn't work absolutely fine for generating scientific progress, so long as the incentives are sufficient to attract talented people.

    • BugDoc says:

      "This means funding more R01s with ample budgets so that universities hire more tenure-track faculty and those tenure-track faculty can reasonably expect to be able to sustain their research programs."

      You mean universities should hire more tenure track faculty who will have to write more grant applications who will have to hire more students and postdocs who will be out looking for more faculty positions? Oh wait.....

    • jmz4gtu says:

      Well, for one, it's conceptually a bad idea to put such rigorous selection on a process that essentially relies on voluntary self-policing for ensuring the veracity of results. If you're selecting for the top 10%, without giving people a reasonable alternative, you breed desperation and desperation breeds cheating. Obviously numbers are going to be hard to come by for this phenomena. To use your analogy, though, it's why steroid use and lip-synching are things that happen. Big rewards and dire consequences often incentivize dishonest behavior.

      Secondly, you're selecting for a very particular type, as another commentator noted. You're essentially asking a grad student to look at the PIs at their university and say, "Yes, I can do as well or better than them", often with precious little experience or evidence to back that certainty. It may or may not be true, but having that much unshakable faith in something is not a thing I personally want to encourage in such a skeptical pursuit as scientific inquiry. However, that's the type of person the Thunderdome mentality selects for, versus a more stable system that might encourage more moderate personalities.
      It also promotes a variety of other problems, such as discouraging data sharing, postponing trainee independence, etc.

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