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.