Models of Support for Staff Scientist Positions

Apr 13 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

The topic of support of staff scientists has been discussed extensively recently. NCI announced its intention of initiating a new mechanism for the support of such positions (discussed extensively at Drugmonkey). A poll recently showed that 77% of respondents favored creating more staff scientists as a way of dealing with the present postdoc situation.

I recently tweeted a question about the potential of block grants as a mechanism of supporting staff scientist positions. This idea came out of discussions that I had years ago during the NIH "Enhancing Peer Review" process. As today, the discussions centered around how to stabilize staff scientist positions as a career path. The block grant model was proposed as a potential alternative to individual awards such as those to be piloted by NCI. The concerns about an individual award model were (1) the position is still only as stable as a single grant and (2) the criteria for reviewing staff scientists in conjunction with their environment (associated PI, etc.) appeared to be hard to manage. The use of larger grant to an institution supporting a cadre of staff scientists could diminish some of these concerns since such grants could be more stable and could be judged over time by criteria related to the stabilization of staff scientist positions. One obvious downside is that the institutions would be responsible for selecting the staff scientists to be supported with only indirect outside influences.

What are your thoughts about individual awards versus institutional awards for staff scientists? How could an institutional award be structured to best achieve the goals of creating a larger number of more stable staff scientist positions?

31 responses so far

  • potnia theron says:

    Institutional support: opportunity for exploitation by the Big Dogs - what is the probability it will be used to support their staff when they don't get a renewal? Putting it individual awards is a way to encourage people to consider alternatives to adding more students to the world.

  • Kristy Lamb says:

    You empower whoever you directly fund. Giving extra cash to institutions or PIs does nothing to stem the mistreatment of their worker bees and gives no incentive to make sure said worker bees still get publications.

  • The New PI says:

    After the discussion at U Wisconsin this weekend, I've been considering a mixed model. My fear is that an individual award to the scientist will basically generate a glorified postdoc and just extend their stay in the lab possibly hurting their chances of getting another job. I've been looking at the NIH itself as a model and my understanding (correct me if I'm wrong) is that positions there are basically institutional government jobs and that the staff scientist can change labs or move somewhere else if their PI retires/leaves. Staff scientists there train students, lead projects and provide continuity. Everyone I know who started a lab at the NIH was dying to get a staff scientist and kind of waiting like a vulture for retirements. Many have applied to my lab, but as a new PI in a private institution, I looked at their 80K salary and had to decline. I have always been in labs with long-term technical/scientific staff and I really really miss that, but unless there is an institutional mechanisms to maintain stability then the PI has to shoulder the responsibility for an enormous salary (while they have to worry about their own enormous salary). I have been wondering whether multiple mechanisms should be in place with 1) individual grants AND 2) NIH institutional staff scientist grants (like training grants) AND 3) departmental/university funds earmaked to maintain a staff scientist pool AND 4) generation of more core facilities which could be run by staff scientists.

    • datahound says:

      I think the NIH staff scientist model works fairly well but there are caveats. They do play important roles in terms of lab stability and productivity. Staff scientists have a moderate amount of job security. First, intramural budgets are more stable than those in the extramural world so security within a lab is fairly high. If a PI retires or leaves, they do not have job security although they can compete for any openings with the advantage of being insiders. I do not know of any data that bear on how frequently staff scientists transition between labs.

  • SaG says:

    If an institution gets a block grant like you describe would the PIs at those schools be forbidden from budgeting for Post-docs or other higher level folks in their grant apps? Otherwise it is just more resources to already well-resourced schools.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Block grants, due to inevitable local power mongering, do not sufficiently insulate the staff sci from the funding situation and whims of a PI. I am opposed and suggest the individual K-mech model is much better.

  • DJMH says:

    Everything allocated to this type of fund is going to get taken away from the ever-diminishing R01 pot. As I noted in my response to that RFI, the percentage of the total NIH budget devoted to R01-equivalents has dropped from 48% to 37% since 1998. That's a 25% decrease.

    Instead of spinning off new mechanisms to move the money around, rededicate the NIH budget to R01s and equivalents. Can you imagine how much happier PIs would be if R01 success rates went up by, effectively, 33%? Can you imagine how much more likely they would be to think it was worthwhile to keep a relatively expensive but highly productive staff scientist around?

    • datahound says:

      I agree that shifting priorities within the NIH budget toward the shrinking pool of R01-like grants would be an important step. Ideally, if any NIH programs are developed to help support staff scientists, these funds would come from portions of the NIH budget that have grown disproportionately since the beginning of the doubling.

  • qaz says:

    To whom would the block grant go? Universities/Institutions? That sounds like a recipe for departmental in-fighting. Departments? Would this end up being like the training grants that some teams (led by an individual) get which need to be renewed every five years? Does NIH do anything that is not in less than five year increments? It's bad enough worrying about renewing a training grant worth a half dozen or dozen grad student or postdoc slots. Imagine worrying about renewing the block grant for your department, worth a half dozen staff scientist slots. Yikes.

    • drugmonkey says:

      Agree that an essential element is that the staff sci career needs to be insulated from the PI's whims and grant fortunes more so than at present. This is why I favor direct awards to the staff sci.

  • Philapodia says:

    While I understand the idea, this seems like it will lead to a lot of infighting within institutions. Also, I have a feeling that senior PIs with lots of clout would use this mechanism to collect staff scientists whereas junior PIs would be left in the cold. At least with an R01 the individual PI controls their own staffing and they don't have to directly compete against the greybeards/greyhairs for good staff scientists/post-docs.

  • Morgan Price says:

    I work at a national lab where a lot of the funding used to come from block grants. I wasn't around in those days but they have a bad reputation for making it hard to shut down projects. Ideally each individual staff scientist would be reviewed and renewed every few years with a high success rate and some way to redirect staff scientists to more promising research areas ("kill projects, not people"). I haven't heard of anything like this in the U.S. but maybe some European countries have tried it?

  • newbie PI says:

    I really can't see how having a staff scientist-specific grant leads to better job security for staff scientists. As others have noted, the job is still only as secure as the five year grant interval. If you take a job in a lab with a fresh R01 and do a good job, you have pretty much the same level of security (and the same insecurity in year 4). One could argue that a staff scientist would have more security if paid by traditional R01s given that the PI can have multiple overlapping grants.

  • Established PI says:

    It is important to step back and ask what the long-term goal is. As I understand it, the motivation is to create a cadre of staff scientists with reasonable pay, benefits and job stability in lieu of the current reliance on underpaid, exploited postdocs and the oversupply of Ph.D. students whose career prospects have been diminishing. The ready availability of cheap labor, small size of many R01s and common occurrence of funding gaps or lapses is a huge disincentive to hire research associates or staff scientists. That, coupled with NIH's disregard for how postdocs on research grants are paid and treated, has created the current situation. The solution, therefore, needs to grapple with all of those issues simultaneously.

    I don't like the block grant idea because I don't think institutions will do a good enough job of allocating the positions fairly or well. The quality of internal peer review is rarely as good as CSR (with all its flaws) and the positions are too likely to end up being given to the politically savvy. Reviewing block grants will be a nightmare, too (and costly).

    Individual staff scientist grants are too likely to benefit the already rich. Just as training fellowships are more likely to be awarded to students and postdocs in successful labs, the same will happen with staff scientist grants. Anyway, if the staff scientist is supposed to replace postdocs and students on an R01, why are we creating an independent funding mechanism for them?

    One possible solution is for the NIH to incentivize hiring of staff scientists by paying for their benefits as a separate item, just as indirect costs are added to the award. This would make staff scientists more affordable on a typical R01. At the same time, there need to be strict rules on postdoctoral pay and time limits, calculated based on when they received their Ph.D. (with flexibility for time off, etc.), in order to reduce the incentive to hire them as cheap labor. Over the long term, it would be great if the NIH could come up with some mechanism to evaluate how either institutions or PIs deal with workforce and training issues and find a way to add that criterion to grant reviews.

    • drugmonkey says:

      My goal is not to "create a cadre" but rather to take better care of the cadre that has already been created.

  • eeke says:

    I am a little confused about this. Aren't there staff scientists who already have independent R01s? This would be any non-tenure line faculty position, right? If a staff scientist is running and managing the lab, I would favor this group for awarding an R01 over tenured faculty, who have teaching and other responsibilities to the university that the NIH should not be responsible for. With the eligibility requirements being "Any individual(s) with the skills, knowledge, and resources necessary to carry out the proposed research", the NIH should maintain that it funds projects, not people. Any effort to create "special mechanisms" to favor non-tenured, tenured, or senior faculty seems to be a way to further introduce bias into the system and somehow keep the old boy's (or any) club alive.

  • Sara G says:

    One of the motivating factors behind the creation of the SS position is to provide institutional memory for a lab/program. So, of course the younger PIs will not be competitive for SS hires, as they are only required once your lab is up and cruising along (or limping a long, sorta/kinda). I think it's naive to dismiss the SS position in its entirety because it won't benefit every PI equally.

    That being said, I think SS-specific grants are better than institutional ones, as they provide the ability to move between labs if needed. Obviously you have to re-apply for funding every 5 years, or rely on a PI to bridge funding, but even with tenure many PIs live the same grant-to-grant mentality. Even industry jobs are only safe until the next merger...

  • jmz4gtu says:

    I do think a model along the lines of a training grant would be most useful. I also see the value in removing the consideration of individual labs from the equation, to avoid the concentration of yet another alternative mechanism in big name labs. However, as many have noted, the potential for the funding to get warped and abused due to departmental politics is very high.

    I think the best idea would be to incorporate the relative stability, breadth, and oversight of NIH training grants with the funding mechanics of project grants. In other words, a group of faculty (7-10?) would collaborate to write competing, reviewed grants, similar to the P01, which would establish a fund to hire staff scientists for a very broad area of work, but with a general theme (like transcriptional regulation).

    As a deterrent for this becoming like the project grants (where big name labs just pile on to grab all the money), the labs hiring the staff scientists should have an average of 2.5 RPGs per PI. So you could have one BSD with 4 R01s in on the project, but he'd have to be pulling at least 2 people with one R01 each.

    Preference should be given to groups of mid-career investigators who have a record of funding and maturing, but still exciting science. These presumably would benefit most from the continuity and productivity provided by staff scientists. Demonstrated overlap of research interests and synergistic opportunities for a staff scientist working with multiple labs (e.g. a computational and wet lab) should be considered assets to an application.

    At the end of the 5-10 year period, as with training grants, there will be a review, where renewal will be decided by both an evaluation by the NIH (on site, if possible), as well as a study section review of a written application for renewal.
    Salaries should be around the 60-75k region, the NIH should pay fringe and 8% IDC.

  • UCProf says:

    Here's a different idea that seems more appealing to me. Hire the staff scientists as NIH career employees. Then NIH would assign them to work in specific laboratories.

    PIs could request a staff scientist in their proposal, but they would be assigned one by NIH long term.

    From the staff scientist perspective, if the lab they are working in shuts down, they just get transferred to a new lab. The worst case would be in another city.

    Of course PIs won't like this idea, because it takes power away from them, but it really differentiates the staff scientist as a distinct career path and not a PI wannabe.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    That's an interesting idea, but I have a couple questions.
    Would the staff scientist determine which labs or proposals they worked on?
    If not, who would, and how?
    Secondly, who would determine, and how, when a staff scientist could leave a project?

    Lets say you can opt to leave at the end of each R01 term. I like this idea because, if you mistreat your employees, it will put you at a real disadvantage, as staff scientists won't work with you (as opposed to being bound to PI by either history or funding).

    Actually, this model could also work really well for postdocs. At the end of grad school, you apply for a fellowship, and if you get it, you can attach yourself to NIH funded lab (provided the PI agrees and so on). The NIH will pay your salary, and thus control the number postdocs entering the system, which would create some space in the postdoc holding pen. Our current system, where you work for a year or so before generating a fellowship application, seems to be a little backwards and unreliable.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Staff Scientist will not become a stable career path for adults unless the whole "trainee" ponzi scheme is strangled in the crib. These other suggestions (block grants, K awards, etc) are, at best, a band-aid, and are actually likely to just become a plaything for Deans, Chairs, and BSDs.

    NIH needs to do 3 things to make SS viable:
    1) ban R01's from funding tuition;
    2) mandate benefits for all workers funded by NIH 50% or more (from all grants combined);
    3) ban the use of the title "postdoc" for all scientists >5 years after PhD.

    There is no other career path, outside of Amway, that has the workforce structure of the biomedical enterprise. The idea of 1 PI and endless "trainees" is shameful.

  • dsc says:

    The model with the least chance for top-down abuse is one where the staff scientists are not employees of the university at which they work, but are instead federal employees who carry their own funding contingent on finding a laboratory willing to sponsor them at a credible research center. This makes them desired commodities with autonomy and flexibility to build a career and a life while also continuing to perform the bench science they love. It is for lack of a better term a free-agent model. Initial lab sponsorships could be on 1-2 year terms with optional renewal. If the contract is not renewed they can move to another group. The worry in a model like this system is that labs will use people for a year to finish a project then release them. How prevalent this behavior would be is hard to speculate on, however if the staff scientist carry their own funding dependent on employment, someone will almost always be willing to sponsor them. The cost of this type of program is no higher than a grant model, and if anything removes a layer of university overhead charges, as well as grant review time. Directing the initial hiring process for the government would be slightly uncharted territory, but given the pool of people who want to work at the bench and have a solid track record and recommendations there would be very little risk in most hires from either the government or the sponsor prospective.

    • dsc says:

      My proposed solution is basically a direct investment in the research industry by the federal government (as are most grant programs). The harder part is figuring out the economics that incentivize fewer people to get into the pipeline at the graduate school level, otherwise a program like I suggest would be little more than a pressure release before the postdoc pool ballooned again. Directing some money away from the training grant programs would incentivize institutions to accept fewer graduate students. In an ideal world we simply keep the pipeline as is then expand the research industry with added money for permanent research positions but that is not likely in the current political environment.

  • qaz says:

    Looking at all this discussion and all of these proposals makes it clear that the problem isn't the lack of a staff scientist position per se, but rather the lack of lab stability. A staff scientist funded on an individual grant (a Kxx for example) will have to renew every 5 years. A training grant would have to be renewed every 5 years. Those don't create a staff scientist stable position - it just creates a new form of PI or postdoc. A block grant or NIH-employee position would be subject to the whim of internal administration (which is much more political than CSR).

    It all comes back to lab stability. In the good old days (the Golden Age?) of lab funding, when a lab could reasonably expect that they knew they could stay funded as long as they were doing reasonable work (see current discussion of a small town grocer on DrugMonkey), a person could attach him or herself to a PI and ride that PI's lab through. Coming up as a graduate student and postdoc during this time, I saw many labs with long-term staff scientists, particularly above-median labs (yes, BSD's had them, but then so did a lot of mid-range labs). Basically, any lab or team that could reliably expect continued funding of an R01 could keep a staff scientist. I saw a lot of pairs of one-R01 labs who would share a team of staff scientists.

    But of course in this day and age, continued funding is never guaranteed - it is barely expected - and no PI can guarantee a staff scientist position.

    What we really need to solve is the lab stability problem, not the staff scientist problem.

    • drugmonkey says:

      You are not incorrect qaz, but there is this whole other dimension of the whim of the PI. This is a chance to insulate the career scientist from this as well and it will have all sorts of upside.

  • SaG says:

    I would like to see a system where the place they actually work(!) puts some skin in the game to support these positions. Folks seem overly dependent on the idea that the federal gov't can come to the rescue and solve these problems.

    • dsc says:

      There is already a demonstrated unwillingness to do this. The current model supports exploiting trainees (students and postdocs). Without incentive, carrot or stick, this behavior won't change. Government sponsorship (grants or direct employment) bypasses this. I am skeptical of grant solutions because of the necessity for renewal and the likelihood of universities extracting more overhead.

      • SaG says:

        No one is forcing PIs to exploit trainees. They do it of their own free will. I do not always buy the argument that to be a successful PI one must exploit anyone. One solution is the top down federal gov't carrot and stick solution. I would prefer a bottom up solution where PIs make the necessary changes to the training culture without being punished or bribed.

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

  • KateOCG says:

    As another participant in the UW Rescuing Research workshop last weekend, I agree with The New PI that a mixed approach is needed. In combination, the following could work together to create a stable career path for more academic researchers and reduce the over-reliance on trainee labor:

    1. Implement supplements to R01s for replacing trainee positions with staff scientists. These would be similar to the current supplements to promote diversity, but the goal would be to promote a sustainable biomedical workforce. They would need to be easy to obtain and cover enough of the salary and benefits to make staff scientist positions competitive with postdocs.
    2. K05 awards to individual staff scientists.
    3. University/institutional support in the form of bridge funding for staff scientists between grants.

  • Namesaste_Ish says:

    Another issue of funding an individual without substantial tenure stream faculty involvement/oversight is that this model fails to incorporate the equipment part of staff scientists. Those who are outstanding at imaging, ephys, mass spec etc usually require a particular expensive toy or a core housing a toy.

    Yes, it would be lovely to have staff scientists have autonomy from evil power hungry PIs but ultimately, we need these evil PIs (as well as nice ones, if those people exist) to provide mentorship.

    One could envision a situation where there is accountability and mentorship provided by both the Office of Research and a PI where skills in marketing the techniques a staff scientist excels at (under the Office of Research) as well as offers and opportunity for the staff scientist to attend meetings and do mini-sabbaticals visiting new Unis and tech spots to try new techniques.

    The worst outcome of this, in my opinion, is not the 'evil PI overlord' but rather the failure to nurture continued growth of staff scientists leading tothis pool of talent stagnating intellectually, further disheartening them and leading to their use of Molly, MDMA or Ecstasy*.
    *That part was for you Ted.

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