Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

ASBMB Summit Calls For More Staff Scientists, More Efforts to Promote Career Development

Postdoctoral researchers, supported by individuals and groups with a stake in their success, emerged from a two-day conference earlier this month with a detailed agenda for action toward reforming the dysfunctional system that trains and sustains the recently graduated professionals.

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) laid out a dozen “action items” on which the group and other advocates for postdocs committed to working over the next several months. The items were the topic of discussion at ASBMB’s “Sustainability Summit,” held February 4–5 in Washington, DC.

“We hope to begin working on many of these action items within the next two months,” Chris Pickett, a policy analyst at ASBMB, told GEN. “We haven’t begun discussing completion dates, but we originally wanted projects that would be completed within a few years, and I think most of the action items fall into that category.”

The 12 items fall into any of three broad categories: optimizing the workforce, enhancing training, and research funding. More than half the action items called for optimizing the workforce by addressing issues related to postdocs, as well as staff scientists.

For postdocs, ASBMB committed itself to:

  • Create and distribute posters highlighting key career-development aspects of graduate and postdoc programs.
  • Create a “best practices” document and lobby for institutions to limit postdoc terms to five years, through ASBMB’s Public Affairs Advisory Committee.
  • Lead efforts to promote a positive academic culture, including awards for programs that provide a positive work environment and adequately train postdocs for success in their chosen career.
  • Facilitate consolidating postdoc designations by universities, and monitoring NIH efforts to assess and modify Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSA) language that impedes universities from such consolidations.

Concerns over Handling

“It is surprising that despite having had postdocs for decades, institutions are not handling them properly, and I think it’s very indicative of the general attitude there has been toward postdocs,” one of the summit’s six leaders, Gary McDowell, Ph.D., told GEN. He is a postdoctoral scholar in the lab of Michael Levin, Ph.D., director of the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts University.

Dr. McDowell was co-lead organizer of the second symposium held late last year by Future of Research (FoR), a group of postdocs in the Boston region. FoR is filing for nonprofit status and pursuing funding for a full-time executive director, he said, with plans this year for symposia in New York, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as Boston.

The ASBMB summit is among initiatives in recent months designed to foster dialogue and data-gathering that advocates hope will begin translating to better pay and working conditions for postdocs.

In coming weeks, Dr. McDowell said, postdocs from FoR’s New York University, Chicago, and Boston groups will hold a workshop at the National Postdoc Association meeting in March in Grand Rapids, MI, while Boston FoR will host a workshop in May at the NatureJobs Career Expo in Boston.

The groups are preparing a paper that will summarize the state of the labor market and highlight major points of discussion and recommendations for submission to a journal.

“We hope to target senior academics, and confront them with the realities of the job market, so that the ‘people are getting jobs so there isn’t a problem,’ and ‘industry can soak up the excess trainees’ myths are challenged in a venue that they will hopefully pay attention to,” said Dr. McDowell, who is also a visiting scholar in the lab of Laura Anne Lowery, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at Boston College.

Promoting Staff Scientists

ASBMB and summit participants also committed to promoting staff scientists by defining their positions and career pathways, and urging the NIH to add Individual Development Plan (IDP) descriptors to everyone paid by grants.

In addition, the society is urging the National Academies to include staff scientists in its upcoming study assessing the needs of the next generation of researchers.

“We’d really like them to analyze places that use a lot of staff scientists, to look at how productive are those labs, relative to those that depend on trainee labor,” Pickett said. “How cost efficient is it to have staff scientists? Is a staff scientist model more expensive or less expensive than having trainees?”

The NIH was directed to work with the National Academy of Sciences on conducting “a comprehensive study on policies affecting the next generation of researchers” in the U.S., under the budget deal hammered out in December between Congress and President Obama. An agreement to that effect is part of a bill now under review in Congress.

On February 9, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee passed Next Generation Researchers Act, sending the measure onto the full Senate. The Act would create within NIH’s Office of the Director a “Next Generation of Researchers Initiative” that would coordinate “all policies and programs aimed at promoting and providing opportunities for new researchers and earlier research independence.” The bill has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives as HR 3466 by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI). In the U.S. Senate, the measure was introduced as S.2014 by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Susan Collins (R-ME). Sara Frueh, media officer, science policy for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, told GEN no work has commenced on the study.

C. Robert Matthews, Ph.D., leader of the summit’s workforce working group, told GEN the group came up with some basic principles about the role of staff scientists. A staff scientist would not be a permanent tenured post, but more likely a contract position of three to five years, said Dr. Matthews, who is chair and Arthur F. and Helen P. Koskinas professor of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology at University of Massachusetts Medical School.

“It would be a culture change for most labs to move to that and rebalance by adding that kind of person to their workforce,” Dr. Matthews said. “We want to explore the idea that it might be to the labs’ advantage to do so in times of tight funding, by having stable and high-level expertise. The question is, and we’re going to have to find out, do you actually get more done that way than with graduate students and postdocs?”

In a 2014 report, “The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited,” the National Academies called for more staff scientists: “In many instances, positions currently occupied by postdoctoral researchers are more appropriately filled by permanent staff scientists (e.g., technicians, research assistant professors, staff scientists, laboratory managers).”

“The title of ‘postdoctoral researcher’ should be applied only to those people who are receiving advanced training in research,” the National Academies recommended. “When the appointment period is completed, the postdoctoral researchers should move on to a permanent position externally or be transitioned internally to a staff position with a different and appropriate designation and salary.”

The report also acknowledged a key hurdle to hiring staff scientists: their higher pay than postdocs, whose starting salaries averaged about $41,000, or 52% of the average nine-month salary of new assistant professors at public research universities.

Centering on Career Development

ASBMB also called for a UMass Medical school colleague of Dr. Matthews, Cynthia Fuhrmann, Ph.D., and Bruce Alberts, Ph.D., a former National Academies of Science President now at University of California, San Francisco, to lead a committee that will define the function and activities of one of the society’s key action items, a center that would promote career development among graduates and postdocs. Dr. Fuhrmann is assistant dean for career and professional development for the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, where she is also an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology.

The center is envisioned as a web-based repository of materials, similar to online portals such as Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER).

“The idea behind the center was that it would be, essentially, a train-the-trainers center,” Pickett said. “There’s a lot being done in career development for graduate students and postdocs. And there are a lot of people getting into the career development field without a lot of support from others in the field. Materials on lesson plans and best practices and how to properly execute a career development curriculum are pretty dispersed within the science career development field.”

Pickett added that “The idea of this repository was to take materials from any source, send them through a rigorous peer review to make sure they are of high quality, and then publish them so that other career development professions can take them, whether they be lesson plans or slide decks or other materials, and implement them for their own career development activities.”

ASBMB committed itself to “develop tools to promote culture change and an understanding of careers beyond academic research” through a partnership with the NIH’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) consortium, university professional development programs, and other scientific societies.

“Our coalitions would be more of the ad hoc variety,” Pickett continued. “We would develop different coalitions for different action items depending on groups’ interests.”

The action items also called for ASBMB to lead an effort to define “sustainable and predictable growth” for research, as well as partner with other organizations to facilitate high-level meetings among industry, academia, and governmental leaders.


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