Supporting postdoctoral training activities on research grants

Oct 10 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism, Postdoctoral Training


This has to be the longest winded and most indirect way of putting it.

My interpretation (I could be wrong) is that yes, you can use R-mech research grant funds to send your postdocs to meetings, give seminars and do other postdoctoral training activities that are not directly related to the goals of the research grant.

Working in reverse here, I note today's Notice NOT-OD-15-008:

The Uniform Guidance states; ”For non-Federal entities that educate and engage students in research, the dual role of students as both trainees and employees contributing to the completion of Federal awards for research must be recognized in the application of these principles.” Staff in postdoctoral positions engaged in research, while not generally pursuing an additional degree, are expected to be actively engaged in their training and career development under their research appointments as Post-Docs. This dual role is critical in order to provide Post-Docs with sufficient experience and mentoring for them to successfully pursue independent careers in research and related fields.

Does 200.400(f) require recognition of the dual role of postdoctoral staff appointed on research grants as, both trainees and employees, when appointed as a researcher on research grants?

Yes, the Uniform Guidance 200.400(f) requires the recognition of the dual role of all pre and post-doctoral staff, who are appointed to research positions with the intent that the research experience will further their training and support the development of skills critical to pursue careers as independent investigators or other related careers. Neither Pre-Docs nor Post-Docs need to be specifically appointed in ‘training’ positions to require recognition of this dual role. The requirements and expectations of their appointment will support recognition of this dual role per 200.400(f).

This clarification applies to all NIH awards.

Yeah, this is the only thing I found that mentions postdocs in the OMB Clarification.

Sally Rockey's recent post isn't much help

I am pleased that OMB has taken this step to clarify as our partner institutions often struggled with how to charge, what are essential career development activities, to research grants.

but her 2012 post is a little more illuminating (emphasis added).

We all know postdocs don’t spend every moment at the bench. I think everyone would agree that attending a professional meeting and presenting research results is a critical part of a postdoc’s expected responsibilities. However, lately we’ve had a number of inquiries about which activities postdoctoral fellows are allowed to perform as part of their official duties supported by NIH grants.

So, what constitutes appropriate postdoctoral fellowship activities that can be charged to research project grants and other sponsored agreements? The guidelines allow compensation for all activities that contribute to and are intimately related to the work supported by the award, and that are consistent with the institution’s employment agreements with individuals in comparable positions. So, delivering special lectures, writing reports and articles, participating in seminars, consulting with colleagues and graduate students, and attending meetings and conferences can be supported according to these guidelines.

One interpretation of this is that postdoctoral activity had to be "intimately" related to the award. I guess (?) that what we are discussing is whether we can use research funds to send a postdoc to a meeting that is less clearly related to the grant. Maybe the postdoc doesn't have any data yet. Or maybe the meeting is a new area of science. Or maybe...some "alt careers" training experience? So this interpretation here would say no. Has to be "intimately" related.

But, does the "individuals in comparable positions" leave an out?

Postdocs supported by their National Research Service Award (NRSA) receive stipends set by NIH, and they are expected to devote their full time to the proposed research training, ... Since the purpose of an NRSA postdoctoral traineeship or fellowship is to continue training for a career in research, all activities that contribute to this goal are permissible under these awards. Such activities might include laboratory research, writing research reports, reviews and journal articles, and attending and presenting at scientific conferences and seminars. Other training-related activities that would enhance a future scientific career might include teaching or overseeing students on projects related to the fellow’s or trainee’s research training experience.

Getting back to the opaque Notice from today, I am focusing on "Neither Pre-Docs nor Post-Docs need to be specifically appointed in ‘training’ positions to require recognition of this dual role."

So maybe, perhaps, in the indirect fashion of Government speak this "clarification" is trying to say it is okay to spend research grant dollars sending the postdoctoral trainee who is actually called a "research associate" or similar (because they are not on a "fellowship") to meetings unrelated to the grant itself?

15 responses so far

  • Arlenna says:

    I feel like I am always more confused after trying to read their "clarification" notices.

  • lurker says:

    I would guess this is in response to more postdocs paid on NIH grants tryin to "broaden" their training with teaching an undergrad class here or there, which may be outside the "research mission" of the grant.....

  • The Other Dave says:

    Oh, sure, you CAN...

    But that would be a waste of money. Did you ever hear a panel say "The PI has not been very productive but it's nice that lab members have been to lots of meetings..."?

    Is there even a spot on the BioSketch for trainee success? No.

  • lurker says:

    I would guess this is in response to more and more NIH-grant-funded postdocs doing undergrad teaching to "bolster their credentials" for those SLAC jobs rather than doing benchwork germane to the grant.

  • bystander says:

    What does SLAC stand for?. Thxs

  • AcademicLurker says:

    Small Liberal Arts College.

  • rxnm says:

    Both of these seem to say you cannot spend funds (and postdocs cannot spend time while getting paid at work) on non-research alt-career training.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    A fucking mazing. Is there not a section of the proposal which deals with training. Do you not put something in there like travel for the post doc to conferences will be funded?

  • qaz says:

    The quote says that you CAN allow a postdoc to bolster their teaching credentials: "Other training-related activities that would enhance a future scientific career might include teaching or overseeing students on projects related to the fellow’s or trainee’s research training experience."

  • rxnm says:

    Academia (research or teaching)*
    Academia (administration)
    Industry (research)*
    Industry (corporate)
    Science policy
    Science journalism

    Off the top of my head, these are the careers I've seen postdocs in my cohort go into. By my reading, you would be allowed to spend time training for 2 of them as an NRSA or R funded trainee.

    Without clarity on this, unis will never put serious effort into realistic career preparation or resources for trainees.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    It's not the uni's it's the PIs. Put your postdoc training plan in to the grant and follow it.

  • imager says:

    I think you can always can come up with a reason to send a postdoc to a meeting if the meeting is in your field or related. You want to expand his research on hares into bunnies and now going to the bunny hopping meeting is one way to learn about it. Or you do bunny hopping and send him/her to the meeting on hopping - or movement - to get more background info.

    I always contemplate if it makes sense to send someone especially if it is expensive but from time to time these guys also neat a treat so if it makes sense and the lab can benefit from it...

  • drugmonkey says:

    What about that Science Online meeting (now defunct)? No clear benefit to any research (unless, I suppose, you get the ear of an Ed Yong, Virginia Hughes or Carl Zimmer or similar to cover your latest paper) but of potential alt-career help to a postdoc.

  • rxnm says:

    Not talking about a one-off conference, an informational interview here or there, or one of those notorious panel discussions on "how I got my job that isn't professor" from 4-5 randos. Real alt-career training would include the opportunities for explicit instruction, work, or contribution to things like IP, management in pharma, policy, etc. Things that would, you know, actually give trainees an advantage when pursuing those careers.

    As it stand, there is no way a PI could pay out of a grant for you to take an accounting or property law course, or be happy with a postdoc they pay spending a few months working in the university IP office. PIs are next to useless here anyway. We are talking about the need for trainees to prepare for careers that in almost all cases their "mentors" know nothing about. So they need access, support, resources, and time with mentors who do. Where will these people come from? This is an institution-level problem. And a funding problem.

    If postdoctoral training is truly going to "diversify," these issues need to be addressed, and it will mean by definition that postdocs are doing other things in addition research benchwork, and that they are doing less research benchwork. Unless we just continue with pathetic lip service that perpetuates the problem.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I think you are getting a little far away from the confines of trying to figure out what in the heck this Notice has just permitted that was previously not (clearly) permitted.

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