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...

Police Brutality, Racism, and the killing of Black civilians

Dear Future of Research Community, At a time when there is a continued need for as much collective grieving as there is for concrete actions, writing a statement can feel hollow. When so many in the Black community, on a regular basis, decry the systemic, state-sanctioned violence against them, writing a statement today can feel like social media virtue signaling. When so many corporations are writing statements while likewise continuing to employ discriminatory and racist practices, writing a statement can feel empty. When institutions are quick to assert support for the Black community but just as quickly decry the violence against property before decrying the undeniable violence and escalation of police against Black, unarmed civilians, words feel diluted of meaning. Nevertheless, words and language do have power, as much when they ring true as when they are used to manipulate and distract. Therefore, speaking up when others remain visibly silent in the face of injustice is the bare minimum and the first of many important steps in bringing about the radical restoration and transformation so desperately needed in our country. As early career researchers working to dismantle systems of inequity, we know all too well that there is no “right” way to protest. We also know that speaking truth to power is always met with resistance and requests for placation and patience. We wish to make it clear that we fully support all forms of protest from the Black community, and condemn the continued and escalating racist, systemic use of force by the police against those asserting their right to autonomy and safety. The work of Future of Research...
U.S. Senate Finance Committee meeting on foreign influences highlights federal agency urgency without clarity

U.S. Senate Finance Committee meeting on foreign influences highlights federal agency urgency without clarity

On Wednesday, the United States Senate Finance Committee met to discuss Foreign Threats to Taxpayer – Funded Research: Oversight Opportunities and Policy Solutions. The webpage includes a video of the session (which begins approximately 30 mins in) and written testimonies from panelists in attendance. We are preparing a statement to submit to the Committee as part of the testimony – if you have points you would like us to raise or would like to provide input, please contact info@futureofresearch.org   The hearing sought to discuss, particularly with responsive federal agencies, four main issues related to taxpayer research as laid out by the Committee Chair, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA): 1) the failure to disclose receipt of foreign contributions 2) espionage – or in the words of Senator Grassley, “some researchers are spies”; 3) vetting of researchers – that the federal government does not vet researchers, and neither do institutions; and 4) integrity – addressing the discovery that some peer reviewers have shared confidential grant information.   Testimony in the first panel was heard from representatives of Health and Human Services, including the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Homeland Security, to answer “does the government have the capability to detect and counter these threats?” and discuss legislative and policy solutions to address the issue. Senator Grassley pointed out that the Counterintelligence unit at the FBI had declined to attend and had not explained why. A second panel consisted of a representative from the academic community.   We attempted to capture the discussion in a series of tweets, but some key points appeared to emerge. China, Iran and Russia were...
Postdoc Salaries: New salary threshold for overtime proposed for Fair Labor Standards Act

Postdoc Salaries: New salary threshold for overtime proposed for Fair Labor Standards Act

The data above is from our paper “Monitoring the compliance of the academic enterprise with the Fair Labor Standards Act” showing how institutions were expecting to change salaries after the last FLSA update was blocked.   The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes standards such as minimum wage and overtime pay for employees in both the public and private sectors in the United States. Through the FLSA a minimum wage and overtime pay (for working more than 40 hours per week) at 1.5 times the employee’s regular rate are guaranteed (United States Department of Labor, 2016a). On December 1, 2016, the FLSA was due to be updated by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). One key change proposed was an increase in the annual salary threshold for exemption from overtime pay from the 2004 level of $23,660 to $47,476. The other key change was indexing the salary level so that it would be updated automatically every 3 years pegged to the 40th percentile of full-time salaried workers in the lowest-wage Census region. On December 1st, 2016, the threshold at which salaried workers receive overtime payment for working more than 40 hours per week was due to increase from $23,660 to $47,476 per year, under updates to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This was delayed by an injunction granted November 22nd (see here for more information) and was declared invalid as of August 31st by the same court. The Department of Labor has now proposed a new set of updates to formally retract and replace the 2016 proposal. The proposals: would likely come into effect January 1st 2020 would raise the threshold for overtime exemption from...
NIH to discuss Next Generation of Researchers, and Sexual Harassment, today (Dec 13th)

NIH to discuss Next Generation of Researchers, and Sexual Harassment, today (Dec 13th)

Today in the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) meeting at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the NIH will report out the results from the Next Generation Researchers Initiative Working Group (mandated by Congress, responding to the National Academies recommendations in the “Breaking Through” Report). This will happen at 2 pm Eastern. The NIH will also discuss their plans regarding sexual harassment, responding to another National Academies report from 3.45 pm to 4.45 pm Eastern. The agenda is here, and you can watch live here. They will also be archived. FoR ED Gary McDowell will live-tweet the session on the Next Generation Researchers Initiative on Twitter from @FORsymp (follow #NGRI), and the sessions addressing sexual harassment from @MeTooSTEM (follow #MeTooSTEM). Both will also use the hashtag #NIHACD....
New publication: Assessing the landscape of postdoc salaries in 2016

New publication: Assessing the landscape of postdoc salaries in 2016

A plot of the National Institutes of Health’s National Research Service Awards Year 0 stipend by Financial Year. Also includes a comparison of salaries with their approximate value in 2017, using the Personal Consumer Expenditure Index.   In 2016, the very earliest days of Future of Research’s existence as a nonprofit were dominated by the announcement of updates to the Fair Labor Standards Act, and in particular how that would effectively raise postdoc salaries to $47,476 on December 1st 2016.   The birth – and death – of this update to the Fair Labor Standards Act, and how it was being implemented at institutions, occupied much of our attention, and is summarized in our publication Monitoring the compliance of the academic enterprise with the Fair Labor Standards Act. But even though the update was ultimately not implemented, the academic research system largely went ahead with changes to institutional policies to raise recommended postdoc salaries.   We were however aware of the issue that institutions vary significantly in their ability to count, and presumably, identify postdocs. This led us to ask a number of questions:   If institutions are unable to count their postdocs, and presumably are not overseeing them, do all postdocs receive the salaries set out in an institution’s policy? How strong is the relationship between the National Institutes of Health National Research Service Award stipends (which affect only 15% of graduate students and postdocs funded by NIH, which is not the only funder of postdocs) and what postdocs are getting paid? Are there any factors affecting salary, such as location, gender, or job title?   We therefore began...