Science Policy in our New Administration: Challenges Facing Early Career Researchers

In the week before he was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, then President-elect Biden took the unprecedented step of elevating the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to a cabinet level position. In doing so, Biden demonstrated his commitment to ensuring science is an integral part of his administration and to robustly invest in America’s scientific research enterprise. In a open letter to his chosen nominee, Geneticist Dr. Eric Lander, Biden posed the following questions:

“How can we address stresses on academic research labs and promote creative models for federal research support? How can we reimagine and transform STEM education, empowering teachers and deploying technology to enhance the educational experience? How can we ensure the United States will remain a magnet for the best and brightest minds throughout the world?”

These questions are at the core of Future of Research’s mission. In order to heed President Biden’s call to action to address the stresses on America’s research institutions and labs, we must give a voice to the individuals who underpin the entire scientific research enterprise: early career researchers (ECRs). ECRs such as graduate students and postdoctoral researchers are critical to addressing each of the issues currently facing the future of the scientific research enterprise:

  • Lack of Effective Mentorship–The cultural climate at institutions that conduct STEM research, and thus the success of the research enterprise, is deeply tied to the quality of mentorship available. ECRs face numerous stressors as part of their jobs, many of which can be addressed by recentering training and mentorship as core to the mission of STEM research institutions. Federal funding agencies can and should hold grantees accountable for implementing strong mentoring practices such as:
    • Protection from Harassment
    • Training in Scientific Integrity
    • Fostering Research Independence
    • Providing Professional Development
  • Structural Racism in Academia–The career pressures faced by ECRs disproportionately impact underrepresented minorities, particularly scientists from Black and Brown communities. By addressing the racism built into the current academic structure, we can ensure the best and brightest ECRs continue to contribute to innovate and generate the highest caliber of scientific research. 
  • Unfair Labor Policies–Unlike most workers, ECRs rarely have any say in their employment benefits, and can therefore lack access to critical benefits like retirement or paid family leave. Giving ECRs a voice in their employment through normalization of collective bargaining rights will ensure they receive the pay and support they deserve for the crucial work they do.
  • Hardships Impacting International Scholars–Greater than 50% of the US research workforce  is composed of international scholars, yet they face incredible challenges: from reduced levels of financial support compared to their domestic counterparts, to having to navigate an impenetrable visa system. Leveling the playing field will invigorate our current ECR community and foster a more vibrant and inclusive next generation. It will also ensure a continued flow of exceptional talent to the US, which will strongly benefit our research enterprise. 

In this blog series, we will explore science policy issues and proposals through the lens of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Our new administration presents a promising opportunity to begin creating real change in scientific research and Future of Research aims to ensure ECRs are part of that conversation. In subsequent posts, we will offer our perspective and recommendations on how we can work together to ensure the scientific research enterprise remains “a magnet for the best and brightest minds throughout the world.”

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