A hint about staff scientist awards from Varmus

Mar 06 2015 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH, NIH Careerism

One ray of possible sunshine. Jocelyn Kaiser noted something that I had originally missed in Varmus' letter to the NCI community.


In his resignation letter, Varmus introduces a new award for staff scientists. He says the idea is to offer salary support and independence to scientists who hold less high-profile but essential jobs, such as managing a core facility or doing informatics within a principal investigator’s lab.

The part I missed was in Varmus' bullet points on accomplishments.

In efforts to provide greater stability for investigators in these difficult times, we have established a new seven year Outstanding Investigator Award; are discussing new awards to accelerate graduate and post-doctoral training; and are planning to provide individual support for so-called "staff scientists" at extramural institutions.

Excellent. I have repeatedly suggested that some sort of K mechanism could be used to pay the salary of the people who want to stay in science somewhere below the PI level. They should be limited to salary support, perhaps with a little bit of travel money, full benefits and be competitively renewable.

This would mean that the person would have to be linked up to a NIH funded research mechanism but it wouldn't have to be the same one all of the time. This approach would allow this person some flexibility if the primary PI runs out of money or becomes unduly exploitative. It puts the staff scientist a little bit more in charge of their own destiny, which has to be a plus for most people. And it ensures NIH programmatic, and periodically competitive, review of productivity to continue, thereby keeping the staff scientist from slacking off entirely.

The only real problems here are the overhead rates (if adopted in any large numbers) of K mechanisms and how to deal with a staff scientist who jumps from a primary research grant funded by one IC to another.

I am eager to see what NCI has planned for their version of a staff scientist support initiative.

23 responses so far

  • Dave says:

    I would like to see long...ish term awards for this (10 years perhaps).

  • MorganPhD says:

    The staff scientist position really makes sense if it is implemented through a K mechanism, with (let's say) 80% salary recovery and full bennies. That way, the staff scientist is still "tied" to an institute-specific grant (say a K-award from NCI and an R-award for the PI from NCI), but the staff scientist still has most of the leverage because 20% salary is an absolute bargain (at say, $75K/year, StaffSci is half the price of a grad student).

    My fear, though, is that every core director at a university is going to be "forced" to write for a new staff scientist K award when something like a core director (IMHO) should be wholly funded through the university through some combination of endowment/operating expenses/indirects/center grants.

  • MF says:

    It's an interesting idea. I wonder, though, what criteria (aside from the qualifications of the applicant) might be used when scoring those types of applications? Would a place like Harvard, which certainly has a high density of labs that could all use services of a staff scientist for high-profile projects, be more likely to get one of those than a smaller university/medical school which fewer resources? I suspect this might just exaggerate the inequalities that already exist between rich universities and smaller research enterprises.

  • Kate says:

    In my grad school lab, we had a PhD-level staff scientist who functioned as a lab manager, molecular biology expert for all the projects, and also had his own small-ish projects. He was on almost all the publications (middle-author) from the lab and had a few first-authored pubs here and there. He was employed in this same lab for roughly 25 years (recently had to be let go due to grant budgets), and thus provided an invaluable level of continuity in an environment of trainees coming and going. I didn't realize at the time how rare this type of position was, but saw first-hand how valuable these types of positions can be.

    One thing I worry about if this were via K-mechanism is how to delineate this "track" from the junior faculty "PI-track" (i.e. I could see it turning into yet another extend-the-postdoc mechanism; you're funded for 5 years and then sink or swim).

  • drugmonkey says:

    It has to be renewable and somehow made explicitly clear it is a career-long award if you don't screw it up.

  • David Russler-Germain says:

    Totally agree with DM on the last one: job has to be career-long if performing to some standard. Thus, does this mean the "position" gets awarded to a department/division on behalf of a specific PI, and if desired/needed, the staff scientist can move/be moved to another laboratory? Building this, combined with reducing the number of PhDs we award, would be my first two "easy" steps when it comes to reform (compared to how hard it seems to get it right when it comes to R01/ESI/"Emeritus"/MIRA evolution).

  • qaz says:

    "explicitly clear it is a career-long award if you don't screw it up." - so staff scientist becomes a MORE stable job than PI?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Not really. You are the one who wants hard money, traditional profs only, right?

  • anonymous postdoc (shrew) says:

    I think the way to ensure that a staff scientist award doesn't become another postdoc-extender is to make it a condition of the award that the PI is not permitted to apply for R01 or equivalent grants for...3 years? 5 years? after the start date of the current funding period of the grant. Not forever (some staff scientists may eventually transition into a faculty appointment) and not excluding R21 and R03 for technique development. This would make it clear that the staff scientist position is not a soft-money faculty appointment or a way to spin your wheels as a postdoc, but a true alternative career in which the applicant is forgoing certain privileges to gain others.

  • Spike Lee says:

    I think Kate has it right about K-mechanisms. For the most part they are meant to be one-time only career development awards leading to "independence" -- i.e. a TT appointment. You'd want some different (new?) mechanism whose explicit purpose is to develop/support the careers of staff scientists over a long term. Perhaps something renewable with requirements that you increase your skills along the way, but not that you become independent.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Are you not familiar with the K05? Mechanism families are perhaps more flexible than you imagine.

  • A says:

    You know who this will screw? Career technical staff without PhDs. I employ two Non-PhD "staff scientists" in my lab, a BS + 10 years experience. and a MS + 6 years experience (doing informatics!). They each earn modest (slightly better than postdoc) salaries and are great fits for my lab. But who wouldn't prefer a "free" PhD staff scientist to an MS who still costs the lab 65-75K? This seems like even more incentive to produce more PhDs, which is the last thing we need to incentivize. The job market is already tough for MS-level informatics people because there are so many PhDs looking those jobs, even though they mostly have the same skill sets.

    Furthermore, the whole point of being a career staff scientist for many people is to do research without the grant writing and pressure of bringing in funding. Part of the reason they are so valuable is because they are thinking about the project and not subject to the existential crises of the pre-TT/TT.

    Lasatly, stripping the staff scientist salary out of the research grant further obscures the true cost of doing science. If it takes two people in addition to the PI to accomplish a set of aims, shouldn't a grant pay for those costs?

  • Drowningkittens says:

    Why not let us vote about it?
    Ph.D s are not free in the same way R01s are not free.
    Seems as though you peg staff scientist money as ~75K.

    How much did you make fy2014? Hard & Soft...

  • Spike Lee says:

    Drugmonkey: Hadn't heard about the K05 Looks like it would fit the bill -- but is no longer being offered:

    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-DA-12-016.html

  • drugmonkey says:

    People. FFS. The NIH has many ways of using, defining and constraining funding mechanisms under their families of activity codes. New ones are created, some ICs won't use other ones and a given mechanism can be scrapped entirely.

    Do not get caught up obsessing over whether any current code fits the bill precisely.

  • Philapodia says:

    I find it amusing that a sentence fragment in Varmus' farewell letter is causing this much discussion. Unless there are actual plans somewhere that we can discuss the merits of, isn't this just navel-gazing?

  • drugmonkey says:

    No

  • Kate says:

    I guess what I'm looking for is if anyone has taken the time to put together a list of what a grant mechanism (whether current, revised, or new) would stipulate for this type of position. What are the metrics- salary, terms, how evaluated, etc, and, as 'A' pointed out above, degree requirement- does it have to be a PhD?

  • drugmonkey says:

    I assume that this is what we are about to hear from the NCI at some point. Specifics.

  • jmz4 says:

    What's the concern regarding overhead rates?

    This sounds like a great idea, but it does seem like it would have to go primarily to PhDs if it becomes a major mechanism for taking on technical staff. You'd hire them as a postdoc, let them work for a couple years or till they maxed out their time, have them write one of these, then bump them over to RA or Instructor.
    I guess, given that, I'd like to see separate awards, one for people less than 4 years out of their PhD, and one for people that are RA/Instructor level now. It doesn't seem fair to make someone toil through 6+ years of postdoc if they really just want to stay at the bench, but you can't just kick all the current staff to the curb either. Also, their experience and backgrounds will be so vastly different it'll be hard for study sections to evaluate them against each other.
    And definitely put in some mechanism to discourage just regular postdocs from going for these grants, like a five year R01 ban after the initial term of the grant.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Also, their experience and backgrounds will be so vastly different it'll be hard for study sections to evaluate them against each other.

    Oh please. Study sections already do this evaluating PIs on various mechanisms and trainees on F31 and F32 applications. This is not a problem.

    And definitely put in some mechanism to discourage just regular postdocs from going for these grants, like a five year R01 ban after the initial term of the grant.

    Yes, whomever raised this has a great point that I had not really considered before. How to keep this from being the next PI starter award. Very critical.

    What's the concern regarding overhead rates?

    Presumably it would place them under something less than the full R-mech IDC that their salary under the grants was previously being larded with.

    I guess, given that, I'd like to see separate awards, one for people less than 4 years out of their PhD, and one for people that are RA/Instructor level now. It doesn't seem fair to make someone toil through 6+ years of postdoc if they really just want to stay at the bench, but you can't just kick all the current staff to the curb either.

    and yet it was okay to limit ESI and K99 eligibility to ignore certain people? I'll go ahead and propose that the first few years of this program should be open to those that defended their dissertation, oh, say in 2000 or earlier.

  • jmz4 says:

    "Presumably it would place them under something less than the full R-mech IDC that their salary under the grants was previously being larded with. "
    -If they get the 8% from the other mechs instead. Gotcha.

    "and yet it was okay to limit ESI and K99 eligibility to ignore certain people? "
    -I thought that those were terrible ideas backed with decent intentions, and were horribly implemented. Hence why I think separate award mech would be more fair than arbitrary rules to limit the types of applicants but still allow relative equality among them, in terms of career-level. As noted by you, maybe that's not as much of a problem as I think.

    "I'll go ahead and propose that the first few years of this program should be open to those that defended their dissertation, oh, say in 2000 or earlier."
    -That'd certainly be my preference too. Go for the permapostdocs first (2000 might be stretching it), but eventually you'll want to be making this a viable track for people right out of grad school, no?

    "Oh please. Study sections already do this evaluating PIs on various mechanisms and trainees on F31 and F32 applications. This is not a problem. "
    - F31 and F32s people are all at the same career stage. PI's have ESI vs non to help balance against track record. I think comparing a 10 year postdoc to a 2 year one would be tricky, especially initially. But I've never served on study section, maybe it's easier than I think.

  • drugmonkey says:

    It isn't "easy" to compare people with different ages, specialties, employment types, university type, etc. But standing study sections already have to grapple with these issues. So it isn't any different, is all I'm saying.

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