NCI pilots a staff scientist award

Mar 19 2015 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH Careerism

http://news.sciencemag.org/biology/2015/03/cancer-institute-plans-new-award-staff-scientists

Wow.
In July, 2007 I wrote:

Create career awards (not fellowships because of the way institutions use this to screw fellows out of the usual employment benefits) for that category of doctoral research scientist who is happy to labor away in someone else’s lab without being a PI. These people already exist, in great numbers and often work through to retirement in nebulous job categories. Let’s recognize that these people are an essential fuel for the NIH engine. It can be on the 5 yr cycle so that productivity is assessed and individuals are accountable to produce. This will create a great deal of independence in these individuals so that they are not beholden to one PI. Think of the side bennies on scientific fraud!

In Aug, 2008 I wrote:

I have a modest suggestion, of course. The K05 mechanism. Or rather, something much like the K05......Suppose something like this were made available for career Ph.D. scientists as essentially a fellowship. Without any requirement for a professorial appointment and minimal actual research component. The important point being that it is applied for, awarded to and evaluated for renewal by the career scientist with every expectation that this is a career award. There would be details of course. You'd have to have a host lab at most times- but allow for transition if one lab loses grant support or something. Nice and easy for the supported career scientist to find a new lab, don't you think? "Hey, PI Smith, I have my salary supported and I'd like to come play in your lab..." would go over quite nicely. Progress could be evaluated just as with any other award, keeping the pressure on for the individual to publish.

I commented at Rock Talking in Feb 2011:

Returning to the OP question about workforce, one of the most profound changes over 30 years is the length of time, sometimes career length, spent in the dark twilight of postdoc/superpostdoc/research scientist/etc in traditional academic settings.

Some could be perfectly happy in such a role if there were a little more career certainty, benefits and insulation from exploitative PIs.

One thing the NIH could do is create a K mech sort of like the K05 but intended for the staff scientist level. Career level benefits required. Has to be renewable too. It could be tied to Rmechs of a lab head (for the primary research support) but it should be easily switched to a different lab w/in the University if necessary. Competitive review would focus on productivity rather than the *specific* project.

I think you can see why I am so excited about what NCI is proposing [video link, start at 2:20] to do as described by Jocelyn Kaiser At ScienceInsider:

The K05 “research specialist award,” as NCI is calling it, would be aimed at scientists with a master’s, Ph.D., M.D., or other advanced degree holding positions such as lab research scientist, core facility manager, or data scientist.

Applicants would need to be sponsored by a PI and their institution. The award could cover up to 100% of their salary, but not research expenses. The 5-year, renewable award also would be “portable” if the recipient moved to another lab or institution.

Notes from the NCI presentation:
at 2:26:30 it is emphasized that this award has to be independent from a PI's grant.

slide at 2:26 notes it would be for individuals including but not limited to : lab research scientists, core facility managers and data scientists.

2:27 slide emphasizes "only to individuals who have made significant contribution to a cancer research program".

2:28 only for that portion of salary devoted to cancer research, expected to be at least 50% effort

[DM- this taps into a sticky point I've mentioned before which is how this is supposed to work for cross-IC scientists. I think they need to work this out better, maybe do it from the OD if necessary. It's all for the good of NIH, right? So they need to work out how to have a scientist be able to jump from a NCI lab to a NIGMS lab if necessary]

2:29 -the research proposal is to be written jointly by the applicant and the sponsoring PI, describing the research.

[DM- I think this is workable even though my eye started to twitch. There is going to be some slippage here with respect to the goals of making this award portable and not tied to the fate of one lab's research grant]

2:29:55 -Initially the Research Specialist to apply while supported on an existing research grant. Once the K05 is awarded, it would be expected to be 50/50 support with the grant and then continuing on the K05 100% once the grant ended.

2:30:30 - Review criteria. Accomplishment of applicant individually and within the nominating lab's program. Accomplishment of the PI and Uni. Importance of the applicant to the research program of the PI.

[DM- Welp. This is certainly going down a road of contributing to the rich getting richer which is not something I support. Unless "importance to the research program of the PI" means helping to stabilize the science of a have-not type of PI who struggles to maintain consistent funding.]

2:31- They are going to launch this via RFA as a pilot program. 50-60 awards planned over an 18 month period.

[DM- NICE!]

2:32: slide on portability of the award - possible but requires PO approval if PI and K05 move together, if the PI leaves and K05 stays, if the grant is lost, etc.

if K05 Specialist chooses on her/his own hook to leave old lab, it will require a new PI, approval, etc. The old PI is eligible for 2 year administrative supplement because they are "suddenly missing a critical support component".

[DM- ugh, this last part. Why should the original grant be compensated for the K05 person deciding to leave? It will already have benefited from that 50% free effort. Rich get richer, one. and a reward for that scenario where the PI is such a jerkface that the K05 leaves him/her? no. and regarding "critical support component", dude, what about when any postdoc chooses to leave? happens all the time. can I get some free money for suddenly missing an awesome postdoc?]

2:36 on assessment of the pilot. "critical to get input from the PI about how well their needs have been served"

[DM- well sure. but...... grrrr. this should be about the K05 awardee's perspective. The whole point is that the existing system puts these people's careers into the hands of the big cheese PI. That is what the focus should be on here. The K05 Research Specialist. Not on whether the PI's loss of control has allowed him or her to continue to exploit or whether this is just a way to shield the haves of the world from the grant game a little bit more.]

Q/A:
Bar-Sagi: Restrict the applicants to PhDs? Should Core Directors be excluded (because business model of the U makes security different)? 2:39:20- situation where it "backfires" on the lab

Golub: "but, the quid pro quo is that they (the staff sci type) exchange the lack of obligation to raise their own salary for the lack of independence". wants to know if somehow this is a bait and switch

[DM- well yeah, but that ship has sailed. the goal here is to fix the part where staff scientists can no longer rely on the BigCheese just being endlessly funded forever with out interruption]

2:46 Gray: " a mechanism by which one could survive a hiccup in funding".

[DM ugh- the "one" here is clearly meant as the PI. Sooooooo focused on the PI and not the K05 person.....]

84 responses so far

  • Aaron Meyer says:

    It's hard to say how much, but a significant push for this comes from the systems biology community, where there are great staff scientists that are absolutely essential for maintaining code of widely used tools. They've generally had to be supported through large labs and moved around onto different grants, with very little stability or recognition. This award format was specifically requested at a steering meeting at the end of the ICBP program (http://icbp.nci.nih.gov).

  • Dave says:

    Post-doc CNS paper required in 5....4....3....2.....

  • Spike Lee says:

    K05, DM called it.

  • Science Grunt says:

    I like this. Finally some financial acknowledgment from someone in NIH that the "up or out" model they have been funding is unsustainable and has affected morale in the ranks. Devil is in the details and this may crash and burn, and it doesn't quite solve the problem of allocating finite amount of funds.

    "(...) Some worried that the staff scientist might leave at an inopportune moment, making the lab less, not more, stable. Would labs try to poach the best ones? (...)"

    Well, if the only reason why a staff scientist isn't leaving a lab is because the PI is controlling their funds, then you're doing it wrong.

  • UCProf says:

    Irv Weissman had the best comment. They need to make the eligibility for this K05 to be greater than 5 years since PhD. Otherwise, they are going to be flooded with applications from post-docs who are worried their K99 won't make the cut.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Well, if the only reason why a staff scientist isn't leaving a lab is because the PI is controlling their funds, then you're doing it wrong.

    word.

  • becca says:

    Given the credentialism creep we experience, I do wonder how we'll keep it from becoming an obligatory post-postdoc career stage designed to funnel people into PIhood. It's not that it's not brilliant they are trying something, but it's either outlaw these people from getting future R grants (which is kind of mean for people whose career aspirations legitimately evolve) or expect the age at first R01 to go up another 5 years.

  • MorganPhD says:

    @UCProf,
    Exactly. Make the eligibility start after the K99 and K01 award eligibility ends (4 and 5 years, respectively). Another possibility is 7+ years, post-PhD which is where the NRSA pay scale recommendations end for postdocs.

  • Dave says:

    This is starting to sound nothing more than a mechanism for BSDs to get salary for their techs. Nice little supplement to their R01s. Fail.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I am concerned it could go that way, yes.

  • shrew says:

    I guess I am not surprised that the focus is on how this will affect PIs, since I sincerely doubt there were any permadocs consulted by NCI while they were developing this plan. Likewise, no permadocs in that Q and A session.

    Which, I mean, who cares? People who would be recipients of this mechanism are riff-raff anyway, know what I mean?

    NCI, like all ICs, knows which side its bread is buttered on.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Which side is the seed corn they are eating buttered on?

  • Dave says:

    Also, the 5 year award doesn't solve anything. What many were looking for in these awards was stability. That was whole fucking point . I don't see how these awards will be any different to a tech/post-doc paid from a 5 year R01. When it ends, you are still screwed and unemployed, whether it is an R01 or a K05.

  • shrew says:

    I don't think the 5-year length is inherently a problem. The NIH has not been able lately to justify awards of longer duration to PIs, and it would beggar belief for them to put more faith in a more-untested award recipient.

    DM, "seed corn" anonymous postdocs like myself are not buttered on any side. The appropriate metaphor for seed corn is "grist for the mill" - the mill being the objectives of someone who already has an R01.

    Ideally, I would love to see these awards weighted on a needs-based basis according to the PI, so the more well-funded the PI is, the less of a chance their person has of securing an K05. I know that is 100% the opposite of what will happen in reality - it is just the outcome that would most level the playing field (between already-existing PIs), and make it easier for a person working for a intermittently-funded, wonderful boss to continue working for that person, instead of being forced to decamp for a well-funded group run by a maniac.

  • BugDoc says:

    I'm very much in favor of recognizing the incredible value of staff scientists and trying to better establish their role in the scientific enterprise, by some mechanism. BUT, what many of the task force reports have generally called for is trying to make the staff scientist a more "stable" career option, and I'm not sure the K05 type approach will do much to change that. Basically these positions are soft money positions that are in no way supported by institutions. Even for those who are wanting the staff sci position (as opposed to just trying to extend a postdoc) I'm wondering if this option will just turn being a staff scientist into a career where they will all be expected and pressured into writing such grants, just like mini-faculty, which most that I know explicitly do not want to do.

  • Dave says:

    The NIH has not been able lately to justify awards of longer duration to PIs, and it would beggar belief for them to put more faith in a more-untested award recipient.

    This is not about the PI.

  • biodorkus says:

    Couldn't agree more, shrew. This should be weighted to PIs who are stuck in that early career faculty stages and have a good program going, but are having difficulty getting stable funding to keep their program going. And why is this being considered only for the NCI and not the NIH in general? Not everyone works in cancer research!

  • biodorkus says:

    Also a great point, BugDoc.

  • Dave says:

    Couldn't agree more, shrew. This should be weighted to PIs who are stuck in that early career faculty stages and have a good program going, but are having difficulty getting stable funding to keep their program going.

    Trolling?

    I think you misunderstand the purpose of this award. Sigh. I give up.

  • biodorkus says:

    I can't figure out how to quote, but Dave I assure you I'm not trolling; I'm a Master's level staff scientist who could theoretically benefit from this type of program in the future. My point is that if these awards are weighted to situations where both the applicant is qualified AND the PI is in need (not someone with multiple R01s), it's a win-win. The staff scientist gets more stability and the option to stay in that lab working on an interesting project, and the PI in turn has a better chance at obtaining an R01 because they're not losing good people due to the difficult funding climate. That doesn't mean the awardee couldn't leave that lab; it means they wouldn't HAVE to simply due to funding difficulties.

  • jmz4 says:

    "This should be weighted to PIs who are stuck in that early career faculty stages and have a good program going, but are having difficulty getting stable funding to keep their program going."
    -Just so someone else says it, this is not about the PIs. This is about the permadocs who are incredible assets and one a glimmer of stability and independence.

    What do you think about having the grant sponsored by the department head instead of the PI? It would take the BSD's name (but maybe not imprimatur) off of the application.

    Of course, the proposal would still have to be tied to a specific lab's expertise, but I would actually build in a mechanism to weight applications involving two or more PI's more heavily. Build collaborations, and create more independence.

    I really do think these types of people should be departmental resources, and the universities have an interest in retaining skilled workers for their labs to utilize. And as DM is so fond of saying, these grants go to institutions, not PI's.

  • biodorkus says:

    jmz4, please read my response to Dave above... my point is that if the NIH is serious about making changes to help stem the bleeding and keep labs from going under in this terrible funding climate, this could be done in a way that it benefits both the staff / "postdoc" AND the PI.

  • newbie PI says:

    I would predict that this will benefit long-term postdocs who want to make a "comeback" in terms of being competitive for faculty jobs. Isn't this basically just a fellowship for older postdocs so they can get their glam paper and go on the faculty job market? I can't figure out how this will truly target staff scientists. Is the lifer lab manager or the dude who runs the microscope facility really going to be competitive for this award at study section?

    My other take on this has to do with the rich getting richer. Even if BSD labs aren't the ONLY ones who get the awards, it seems to me that there is a high likelihood of awardees transferring into BSD labs. If it were me, I'd get the award and then run to the nearest HHMI or NAS member lab, where I had higher likelihood of fancy papers and success.

  • mrl35 says:

    Newbie PI is 100% right about the rich getting richer. But it is even worse, as "the research proposal is to be written jointly by the applicant and the sponsoring PI", so PIs are supposed to put in time and effort writing for funding that may well ultimately end up benefiting the larger, more established labs, who will try their best to lure away any folks from less prestigious institutions/labs who get these grants. And try they will, as these folks will come with full salary support so they are effectively (almost) free labor. There is essentially no downside to bringing them on.

    I agree with jmz4 that these staff scientist positions should be departmental resources, but creating additional soft money positions with the ability to move that salary to a new institution is not the way to create stable departmental resources. Any such grant like this should be competed for at the departmental level as jmz4 suggests, so that the departments can hire these people on contract. It seems reasonable that, in exchange for stability, the staff scientist signs a contract committing to work for a department for a certain amount of time.

    I would also favor some kind of restrictions on the type of activities the staff scientist can engage in while paid by this grant, to distinguish this career path from a traditional postdoc. E.g., no writing for other grants while supported by this mech, and maybe even restrictions on first/senior authorship, as these folks should be supporting, not spearheading, research projects. Such restrictions might help mitigate concerns about this mech becoming just an extra postdoc extension or required step on the way to a TT faculty position.

  • biodorkus says:

    Ugh I wish I could edit a reply above instead of creating a new one; jmz4, wasn't sure if you were asking me specifically above or everyone in general. I like the idea of Department sponorship in part because it might get institutions more involved in valuing their personnel instead of viewing us as a temporary labor force that requires little to no investment on their part. However, I would also have concerns that the Dept. might also abuse this in some way by pressuring awardees to work with multiple labs, or to stay in that Dept. rather than move elsewhere within the institution, etc. I'm not sure if those are valid concerns, but no one wants to be the lab equivalent of the village bicycle!

  • Science Grunt says:

    About stability, "HI GUYZ THIS IS THE REAL WORLD!!!". If you want tenure you need to be one of those guys that are good enough for tenure. Sorry, snowflake I'm talking about you (and myself).

  • Rheophile says:

    newbie PI: "Is the lifer lab manager or the dude who runs the microscope facility really going to be competitive for this award at study section?"

    This is the big question to me. If this is really a different career track, we should be rewarding people who create important value to science, especially those whose contributions are not immediately obvious in authorships, etc. Unfortunately, if we aren't looking at authorship at the study section, what else matters? BSD letter of recommendation? That certainly cuts down on any independence these staff scientists might feel. Department sponsorship rather than PI sponsorship might help.

    If there is some other metric we can judge staff scientists on, maybe we should emphasize that. It could also solve the problem of it turning into postdoc plus, as to win and keep this award, you should be doing things other than churning out prestigious first author papers - and maybe burning your PI bridges.

  • Dave says:

    I must say the Q&A is illuminating. Dr. Golab's question is absolutely on point (starts at 2:43:10) because he raises an interesting point about how K05 awardees will suddenly find themselves in a situation where they are having to worry about supporting their own salary. This is completely the opposite to what non-faculty researchers, as he calls them, want. This again lets the institution off from providing salary support.

    The response completely missed the point, in my opinion.

  • Dave says:

    Dr. Califano's question about review criteria as it pertains to weighting first/last/middle author pubs was also very interesting. The response, again, was unsatisfying because they suggested that the new biosketch format would be helpful in this regard. We all know that's rubbish. My conclusion from that line of questioning? The reviewers will have to sort it out, which in my mind means that high-impact first author pubs will rule the day.

  • jmz4 says:

    "If there is some other metric we can judge staff scientists on, maybe we should emphasize that."
    -I don't think there's a problem evaluating them on publications, they just don't have to be first author pubs. Of course, this creates an incentive to just tack them on in the middle author role, so they'll have to defend and explain their roles in recent publications in the grant itself.

    " If you want tenure you need to be one of those guys that are good enough for tenure."
    -No, you need a narrowly defined skill set only tangentially related to your ability to perform at the bench. The problem this is trying to address is that there are no good options in academia for people that have strong technical skills, but no desire (or capability) to do management and grant writing. Academia and the NIH trained these people, it's in their interest to retain them if they can and if they're good enough. Offering better salary and some autonomy is a strong first step for that.

  • jmz4 says:

    "jmz4, please read my response to Dave above... my point is that if the NIH is serious about making changes to help stem the bleeding and keep labs from going under in this terrible funding climate"
    -But that's *not* the point of this grant. This is about creating a more sustainable academic workforce, by creating staff scientist positions. The point of doing this isn't to do more with less, it is about making sure that when/if funding does become more abundant, we don't find ourselves back in the current situation (where everyone is gunning for a PI-ship and no one can get grants cause the system is saturated).

  • biodorkus says:

    "-But that's *not* the point of this grant. This is about creating a more sustainable academic workforce, by creating staff scientist positions."

    You're right that it's not explicitly the point, but the importance of staff scientists is one item that came up in the NIH advisory recommendations as far as things that should change going forward to ensure the long-term viability of biomedical research in the US, so I think (if done properly) this mechanism could assist in that goal while in the process of addressing the primary goal. I don't think we actually disagree on this; just that we're kind of talking past one another.

    I also agree with what was said about trying to differentiate this from a long-term post-doc who still wants to establish their own lab down the line.

  • pinus says:

    this is so clearly a mechanism written so the rich can become richer. think of it as a T32 for staff scientists. 50% support without making hard money match is meaningless.

  • DJMH says:

    I think it's great that NCI is trying this, so the other ICs can watch and learn. It is like the states as laboratories, sort of. If the program works to enrich BSDs, other ICs can decide if that's what they want to do.

    I didn't watch the video to find out whether these grants carry 8% or negotiated IDC rates. Anybody else?

  • Dave says:

    Didn't hear it mentioned.

  • Newbie says:

    Wonder what the "career" level pay grade is? If this reads like a keep the highly trained technical staff who knows the in's/outs of mass specs, NMR, antibody characterization, and slower learning curve science grant, it might take some $ behind it to stop the industry bleed those techniques suffer from now.

    Compared to some early career Ks for faculty appointments that have ~75k salary, 50k research, 8% IDC that are the bandaid on the multiple failed R01s?

  • Ola says:

    OK so I'm gonna take some shit for what I'm about to say, but WTF someone has to say it - enough already with the blowing smoke up staff scientists' asses!

    Yes they're "valued team members" and "wonderful assets" and have "irreplaceable skills", BUT there's no getting away from the fact that a great proportion of these folks are (or will be) drawn from the ranks of the failed. Not failed as in actually fucked it up, but failed as in didn't reach the potential they set out to achieve when they embarked on this training odyssey (which, to a letter, equals becoming an R01 holding PI).

    I know of virtually no-one who went into grad school intending to become a staff scientist. Even now, grad student candidates either want to be academic PIs or want an "alternative" career that usually involves some nefarious dream of making bank in the drug industry (good luck with that buddy!) or teaching. The grad student who says "yes I want to spend 5 years in school then another 5 years post-doc and then spend the rest of my life in subservience earning $60k, does not exist!

    The SSs I've encountered (and there aren't that many of them around) have all been folks who went the post-doc route, maybe even made it to RAP, but hit a wall in which their abilities or their choice of study section clashed with their career goals. It took them until their late 30s or early 40s to figure out they weren't going to make it (often delusional due to being egged on by greedy sponsoring PIs), and now it's too late for them to go the alternative route. By and large these are not people who will, at some magical future time when NIH funding goes up, go on to become PIs. They are people who have run out of options.

    The questions we should really be asking are: whether we need to be rewarding the ones that failed with their own award? Should we as PIs feel guilty for having strung them along? Do we owe anything to the ones who were dumb enough not to figure out the game was rigged and to get out earlier? Should we be incorporating SS as a legitimate career route in our graduate alt-career training efforts? How can such awards, directed at "lifers", be crafted in a way that also stimulates the type of creativity and motivation that others (i.e., those on the ladder) experience? If this whole thing is just a way to pay salaries for K-mech writers who didn't make the cut, what a crock! Show me the ranks of grad students queuing up to be staff scientists, and I'll believe this award fills a need with a positive end, rather than being a guilt-driven.

    When the whole system is built on a pyramid scheme where it's a race to the top, providing a mechanism for some to just opt out of the race and coast to retirement doesn't seem to align well with the overarching goal of funding the best of the best. The ones who should be paying salaries for the SSs, are the Universities that fucked them over in the first place, not the NIH.

    /dons flame-proof suit

  • biodorkus says:

    "I know of virtually no-one who went into grad school intending to become a staff scientist. Even now, grad student candidates either want to be academic PIs or want an "alternative" career that usually involves some nefarious dream of making bank in the drug industry (good luck with that buddy!) or teaching. The grad student who says "yes I want to spend 5 years in school then another 5 years post-doc and then spend the rest of my life in subservience earning $60k, does not exist!
    ....
    The questions we should really be asking are: whether we need to be rewarding the ones that failed with their own award? ... Should we be incorporating SS as a legitimate career route in our graduate alt-career training efforts?"

    I am an exception to the first statement above. I finished undergrad knowing I wanted to pursue grad school eventually, but needing a break. I started working in a research lab and continued to do so for a while, debating my future plans. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that while I loved bench research, I had no desire to run a lab of my own. This decision was solidified as I watched other labs (including some of the ones I worked in) struggle as NIH funding became increasingly difficult to come by. As a result, I entered graduate school (part-time, while also working full-time) with the express intent of earning a Master's degree and continuing my career as a bench scientist. And NO, these people are not signing up for low salaries and subservience unless they work for a bad PI who doesn't recognize and value their abilities. Of course you could theoretically make more money in industry or as a faculty member, but I personally was willing to make that trade-off to have a job I actually love.

    So to answer your last question: YES, we absolutely should be incorporating SS as a legitimate career route rather than a default option for people who couldn't hack it (most of whom never should have been admitted to graduate school in the first place).
    There's currently no disincentive to universities from continuing to accept PhD students because they bear almost no financial responsibility for them. I've met far too many students who realize too late that they don't want the career they're being trained for, or people who simply don't have the drive necessary to make it in these lean times. The point of the NIH recommendations (and hopefully awards like this one) are not to reward those who failed at their intended goal; it's to change the paradigm of how labs are staffed and what careers we train people for. It's not sustainable to continue treating techs as a temporary lab force made almost exclusively of junior people who are just biding time until they go to graduate school. There are advantages to both the long-term, committed, and engaged staff scientists by making it a more viable career, and to the labs themselves for having more senior people to enable continuity and high-level productivity. These positions should be incorporated in addition to the existing persons in various stages of career training (junior techs, students, and post-docs).

  • qaz says:

    If the "staff scientist" has to get grants every five years, how does that create a more stable non-PI life for this person? I don't understand. What this reads to me is that it is designed to create junior faculty within empires of senior faculty.

    I thought this was for people who don't want to be faculty/research-PIs. In my experience, those people fail to be faculty/research-PIs because they can't reliably write write grants. I don't see how this helps.

    So I guess they don't have to teach. (But soft-money research faculty don't teach anyway.)

    I guess they don't have to "run the lab" or get grants for others in the lab, but they do have to get grants for themselves. And I guess they will be dependent on having a lab to provide experimental resources (like NRSAs), so they will only be given to labs that have other funding (like NRSAs).

    They're supposedly going to be judged by study sections, which means (as Dave points out) that GlamourMags will again rule the day.

    @Ola - if these people have really failed, then we've wasted huge amounts of money on them. Wouldn't it be more efficient to find a place for them in the scientific milieu? [I just don't see how this finds that place for them.]

    @biodorkus - you raise an interesting question. Is this grant for PhD's who don't go on to become faculty or for those lab managers who run labs, many of whom are people who went from UG to temporary lab tech to permatech. (In the cases I know of, those people are amazing. They are the people who really run the lab. But none of them would either know how to write or would want to write a grant.)

    I thought the goal was to create a job track for non-grant-writing / non-management people, like the people who run cores. But this doesn't look like that at all.

  • poke says:

    Ola -

    I think you're profoundly wrong on this. The vast, vast, vast, (vast!) majority of my peers in grad school got into science because the enjoyed the day to day at the bench doing experiments part of the job. Surprisingly few people were truly hip to the fact that being a PI required a completely different set of skills and involved tasks bearing little resemblance to bench science. Those people went to grad school almost explicitly to be research scientists. Basically, they got into science because they liked doing science, and many were shocked and dismayed to find that it was next to impossible to get a permanent job in academia where doing experiments (and not writing grants, administration, management, etc etc etc) was the main focus of the job.

    Yes, you can say it is naive of people to go to grad school with no understanding of how academic careers work. I said this vocally for years, although my thinking has changed drastically of late. That a different debate.

    But, I think it's fundamentally wrong to claim that people seeking staff scientists are failed PIs. I'd wager that a lot of people going to grad school are doing so becasue they wan a staff scientist-like career and don't realize that they're being funneled towards the fundamentally different PI position.

  • shrew says:

    You guys are so cute. "This is not about the PI, this is about the unique, fleeting snowflakes that are the permadocs" yadda yadda. OF COURSE it is about the fukken PI. I'm not saying that's morally right, it's just the truth. For instance, look at the very first line of the Science Insider article DM linked to:

    "The U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) plans to test an idea aimed at bringing stability to biomedical research labs...."

    Labs=PIs. If you have your own lab, you are a PI. If you are a PI, you run a research lab. Why, again, would NCI worry about the thoughts and opinions of the untested, unfunded underlings of the people (PIs) it actually cares about and listens to (because they were able to achieve NCI funding)? That would be letting the inmates run the asylum. NCI is only trying out this path because its PIs (of which it already has far too many than it can feed) have convinced the institute that such an award could be of service to Keeping The Lab Running as funding becomes more...intermittent.

    The grant some of you seem to be envisioning in your heads, and the grant as described, are two different animals, designed to benefit two different constituencies. Just because the description bears a similarity to what DM described before does not mean the actual mechanism was designed by a committee with permadocs best interests at heart.

  • shrew says:

    Also, Ola is kind of right. I wouldn't go so far as to say that current staff scientists don't deserve funding because they have failed to get their own lab, but at the PhD level, these positions often go to people who failed to see the writing on the wall. (Will I become one of them in very short order? Stay tuned!)

    However, if I put on my tinfoil hat, I would even go so far as to say that this award could favor entrenched interests even further by possibly reducing competition for R mechanisms, as I know several staff scientist/permadoc types who have successfully competed for R21s (very recently) and occasionally R01s (less recently). So claiming that staff scientists as a group do not want to compete for funding is probably incorrect - there have simply not been other mechanisms to support them. However, this was probably a smaller contributor to action than PI's tales of woe about attempting to keep their operation running.

  • biodorkus says:

    @qaz - You and others have made the point about the issue of having SS responsible to write their own grants, and I do agree on that. I've had enough experience working with my PIs on grants to assist and contribute, but I chose my current career path because I didn't want grant writing to be my job, so it was not a part of my training. I know many will disagree with this because these new awards are (supposedly) not about the PI, but in my opinion, if the awards are for stability in funding those SS positions, they should be written more as a collaboration between the PI and SS. Perhaps the NIH needs to further distinguish this award mechanism as for the career post docs (who were trained for writing and independence but ended up deciding on staying at the bench) vs something different for people like myself who are simply doing bench science at a high level. I think in the latter case it should be an award the PI is seeking to retain the services of a person they find valuable to their research, and while the application criteria should heavily factor on the qualifications and past/future productivity of the SS, the award is made to the PI with the intent of keeping that person with restrictions on spending it a different way.

    @ poke - Perhaps a topic for another day, but I completely agree with you. It's insane to me that people are admitted to grad school straight from UG with zero research experience, essentially signing up for 8-10 years of training in and for a career they know nothing about! It needs to be a requirement for students to have SOME research training so they know what they're getting into, whether that's an internship during UG or time spent working as a technician after graduation.

  • BugDoc says:

    @biodorkus: "It needs to be a requirement for students to have SOME research training so they know what they're getting into" - it absolutely is a requirement for every big program I know. We essentially don't admit people that have less than a year of research-intensive experience for exactly the reason you mention.

    @Ola: I have no doubt that in some cases, people who end up in SS positions are "failed" postdocs, but I would not characterize them that way as a group. I have a really smart staff scientist in my lab who is an outstanding writer. This person just loves science and wants to stay at the bench and mentor people in the lab. She wants to have a life that's not insane and that doesn't require work on nights and weekends to be successful. She is a terrific scientist, an awesome lab member and is writing a grant with me. She just doesn't want to be in the rat race. There are several other SS in our program that fit that same category. All of these folks are well published also. They just don't want our job.

  • qaz says:

    biodorkus - the problem isn't research experience. As BugDoc says, every science program that I know of makes research experience a not-negotiable criterion for consideration. The issue (which poke brings up elegantly) is that what grad school (and postdoc) train you to do is science, but what you need to do as a PI is run a lab. These are different skill sets. (Look at all the blog discussions here and elsewhere about what it takes to succeed in those first assistant professor years.)

    What I see a lot of is people who come into grad school (particularly from small (even top-quality) PUG schools) who have never really seen a PI running a lab and have no idea what the day-to-day life is like, and then say "I don't want your life". Many of these people are great scientists. But they don't want to write grants and they don't want to take responsibility for their own salary. (IME, most of them go teach at those same (top quality) PUG schools.)

    It's the point that DM made when we were talking about entrepreneurship. A lab PI is an entrepreneur (like an artist). Someone working a 9-5 job (say as a receptionist - or for that matter as a teacher) is not.

    I fail to see how this proposal is going to maintain lab stability. The staff scientist is still on a five-year plan and is still out on its a** when that K05 grant is not renewed.

  • biodorkus says:

    qaz - I didn't express it very clearly above, but when I was talking about students needing experience prior to grad school, I meant for the reasons you stated (to see how a lab runs, what the PI actually does, how funding works, etc), not solely for the hands-on portion. I'm glad to hear most programs require some exposure because I know of a few students at my university who were admitted on the basis of good grades (one who'd studied in Physics and not Biology!). I chose the path I did because after spending time working in a lab and seeing the the PIs actually do, I realized I did not want that job. I think grad school applicants need to have spent some time in a similar capacity so they see what they're being trained for and know if they actually want that endpoint or not. Some do, and some don't.

  • drugmonkey says:

    The permadoc is currently subject to the winds that blow all through the PI's lab. The PI decides who to lay off, and when, depending on grants that overlap- sometimes a renewal comes every year. New trainees arrive and are cheaper.

    This insulates the StaffSci K05 from these other things *and* allows them to move next door if the PI runs totally out of grants.

    Of course this offers more stability. Not a lifelong salary guarantee, sure. But the lack of this latter (who gets this anywhere?) is not a good claim that this K05 does nothing.

  • Joe says:

    It seems we are discussing two different groups of people for this award, the long-term tech / lab manager, and the long-term post-doc. At a recent "how do we reform the biological workforce" meeting on my campus, it was suggested that we might redefine tenure to be for professor + lab manager. This was suggested as a way to stabilize the workforce and give better jobs to staff. If the K05 award gave 5yrs support to the lab manager, then it would likely help provide a way to weather funding lapses since the 5yrs would likely stagger relative to R01s.
    As for the long-term post-doc, many of these people already can apply for awards. The better credentialed ones are granted research titles and PI status and allowed to apply for grants like all PIs. Maybe the K05 would give them a better shot at funding, but it seems likely to be the same group, i.e., long-term post-docs in well-funded labs.

  • Anne Carpenter says:

    Anyone care to make a guess as to how many scientists are eligible to apply for this award? For which there will be 50-60 successful awardees.

    I predict a success rate in the low single digits and a phenomenal drain of reviewing time.

  • qaz says:

    So, DM, if we are talking perma-postdoc / scientist ronin / PI-errant, how do we handle the fact that science projects depend on more than salary? This is the long-term complaint about NRSAs - that NRSAs are a rich-get-richer situation because they are only given to labs that already have funding because they only pay for salary and who is going to cover reagents or MRI time or whatever expensive stuff you need to do your project?

    I wonder if there would be a way to make this into something for departments? Where a department has a few staff scientists to hand out to desperate PIs like bridge funding. It would be like a departmental core.

  • Dave says:

    This insulates the StaffSci K05 from these other things *and* allows them to move next door if the PI runs totally out of grants

    Only if the K05 runs out of sync with the 'parent R01'. This was raised superficially during the council discussion, but it wasn't clear to me that this would explicitly be the case by default.

  • Established PI says:

    I favor the model qaz mentions, whereby the staff scientist can remain at the same institution but may switch to other labs depending on funding. The advantage would be job and geographical stability for the staff scientist. I would also favor some sort of institutional contribution, perhaps in the form of retirement or other benefits. If evaluation of these new grants included institutional commitment as a criterion, it could create an incentive for institutions to make these longer-lasting positions. We'll see how it actually plays out.

    Overall, it seems like a good thing that NCI and NIGMS are experimenting with new funding mechanisms. I hope other institutes follow suit and then monitor one another's results. There will likely be some mistakes, but at least they are willing to experiment.

  • Insect Biologist says:

    Ola -

    If you don't know anyone who attended graduate school with the goal of becoming a staff scientist, it may be because people who choose the staff scientist path tend to keep it to themselves - because who wants to be seen as a failure? Another reason is that it can take a few years for a grad student to realize that being a staff scientist is an option, because staff scientists don't have a lot of visibility, and advisors tend to ignore this career track.

    A staff scientist position is great for someone who loves doing research but doesn't enjoy teaching or spending a lot of time in meetings or reviewing other people's manuscripts and proposals. A good staff scientist provides scientific expertise and continuity to a research group. They excel at experimental design, data analysis, and trouble shooting, and many are good at project development and writing. I love the idea of a mechanism for providing additional job security to research scientists, and, if I was a cancer researcher, I would definitely apply.

  • toto says:

    OK, reading the post and the comments I'm a bit confused here.

    Is this award for:

    1- Technicians - people who help run experiments , but do not initiate them.

    2- "Semi-independent" scientists - people who can perform independent research (as in, project design and first-authorship), but don't actually want to run a lab, and don't need much resources beyond their own salary.

    To be more explicit, 2 is pretty much the ideal scenario for the Mountain Dew chuggers (i.e. the computational scientists such as myself).

  • Anonymous says:

    I love Ola's response because it makes very clear how the old people exploit the young people. I think this exploitation is far worse today than it was ~20 years ago, since the number of "trainees" (ie low-paid workers) has grown tremendously relative to TT jobs. The old people have been completely dishonest with the young people as they enter science, re: the terrible job prospects. I find them pretty despicable, as a generation.

    Ola has some real gems:

    "Should we as PIs feel guilty for having strung them along?"

    "Do we owe anything to the ones who were dumb enough not to figure out the game was rigged and to get out earlier?"

    "It took them until their late 30s or early 40s to figure out they weren't going to make it (often delusional due to being egged on by greedy sponsoring PIs)"

    I would also like to point out that the old people / established PIs are primarily men, and they benefit tremendously from this exploitation of the younger generation / "trainees", which is at least half women. The numbers of tenured women profs is not really going up, ie these men are not hiring/tenuring the women. But they are perfectly willing to keep exploiting the young women "trainees" in spite of that.

    One on a note of suggestion instead of just complaining, re: this --
    "The grad student who says "yes I want to spend 5 years in school then another 5 years post-doc and then spend the rest of my life in subservience earning $60k, does not exist!"
    -- This could be solved by increasing the salary to be around the same as the PI. It should just be a different job from a PI, not a lower-paid job.

  • BugDoc says:

    @anonymous: "This could be solved by increasing the salary to be around the same as the PI. It should just be a different job from a PI, not a lower-paid job."

    That's not realistic nor reasonable. I don't think there are very many jobs or industries where the workers get paid as much as the boss. While staff scientists can contribute greatly to the progress of science, a major point seems to be that they don't want all the responsibility of writing grants to support the whole lab, of teaching, of service, etc. I think that's fine, but less responsibility comes with less pay.

  • coldone says:

    @ola: "I know of virtually no-one who went into grad school intending to become a staff scientist."

    @poke: YES!

    I did EXACTLY that. I was very vocal in grad school about wanting a SS career, much to many people's surprise and confusion. Once it became clear to me that I was unlikely to find a secure SS job (didn't want to be faced with moving my entire family across the country - again - when the PI's funding dries up or any number of other scenarios), I decided to become a professor. Yes, professor/PI was my plan B. I would have made crap money as a SS, and would have always worried about the stability of the PI's lab.

    Sure, I had PIs who wanted to hire me (you should see how their eyes light up they ask you to come postdoc with them and you tell them you want an SS job!), and for whom I would have liked to work, but there's problems: if the prof is early career they are less stable, if the prof is late career, they might need to retire MUCH earlier than me, but even if I could find another job in the same uni, it might be hard but necessary to majorly switch fields. Hell, even some of the mid-career profs are closing up shop. I was legitimately concerned with how I would support my family with an SS job. Now I'll be making a slightly better salary in a relatively secure job at a SLAC. Pretty sad that in my case, the dual-body professor positions were easier to get than positions with one of us in a stable SS job and the other a prof (and I DO know how ridiculously lucky we were to both get prof jobs).

    My postdoc lab has only long-term SS and techs, no trainees, because the vast majority of the work just can't be done by trainees, and because the lab is trying not to mindlessly churn out trainees (fewer than 10 trainees in > 30 years). They like their jobs but are all worried that the PI(s) is/are going to retire before the SS are ready to retire and are totally dependent on the PI(s). They would get snapped up by other labs on campus pretty quickly though, but some of them have already changed fields so many times and are not at the stage in life where they'll want to move to another state to work with a collaborator either. And considering how amazing they are, they make utter crap salaries. None of them "failed" to become PI's or "ran out of options" or are 2nd-rate in any way. None of them ever wanted to be PIs, as if that's the only freaking option for anyone who's awesome and motivated. Oh, and most of the papers from that lab have SS as 1st authors, because in a lab where they're not churning out trainees but instead using the work of highly skilled SS, that's what happens. Imagine that, non-PI career scientists primarily doing and communicating science. I would have taken a career SS job in that lab, but it's in its twilight days.

    How this could be supported by the NIH, I dunno. This proposed mech is better than nothing, I guess, but I am with the others in thinking it will be a "rich get richer" thing like the F32. But it will also help the SS recipients, for sure. So, better than what we currently have.

    It does seem like a good idea to have mobility within the institution allowed by this funding mech. I've seen that play out VERY well in practice at a few different institutions for tech/SS-types who find themselves in need of work, in some cases supported by some % of hard money. It usually works extremely well for all involved.

    When I was a grad student I used to think that some of my peers who wanted to be PIs were arrogant, greedy, delusional, and totally naive about the realities of PI-dom. None of that subset turned out to be PIs, by the way. And when someone wants to be a SS they're sometimes viewed as wash-outs? That sucks. I'm all for making the SS a viable career track on a much larger scale. I hope we can find the motivation and the mechanisms to make that happen.

  • coldone says:

    Also, I don't want my prior comment to read like there's anything wrong with people who DON'T originally want to be SS/tech/permadoc, yet find themselves employed as such. Yes, even people who think they want one thing in grad school or postdoc are allowed to change their minds. Nothing at all wrong with someone who plays the game and then says, "screw that, I'm not playing this competing-for-a-PI-job game anymore", and decides to do career benchwork. Even people who would have preferred to be career profs rather than benchmonkeys can do excellent work and it would be best for stable jobs to be available to them.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Plus, life happens. You know?

  • Dennis Eckmeier (@DennisEckmeier) says:

    I know a lot of people who left academia, because they were told (correctly - at least for Germany) that it's almost impossible for a professor to get staff scientist positions happening. I know two people in total who have such a job (with their boss being head of the department) and numerous people, who wanted them already in grad school.

  • JustAGrad says:

    BugDoc,

    When you say less responsibility comes with less pay, isn't the situation of a PI versus a SS just different responsibilities? I can't say that I see PIs actually doing research (they're all on 9-month mostly hard money salaries in my department). They do grant work (writing, reviewing), they teach (usually a 1/1 load), and they do service (to the dept./college/profession). But what they don't do is actual research or writing of papers, though they do sometimes heavily edit the papers their students write if those papers aren't very good.

    A SS would already be doing lots of the same type of service to the profession. Here, the research professors typically teach one class a year, though I don't know if they do that to pick up some extra pay or if they do it for fun. So to me it doesn't seem like PIs necessarily have a whole lot of extra responsibilities compared to SSs.

  • UCProf says:

    less responsibility comes with less pay, isn't the situation of a PI versus a SS just different responsibilities?

    Agreed. However, the SS will never have equal pay, because the PI brings in the money. It's the same everywhere. Salespeople make more than engineering. Rainmaker lawyers make more than "good legal" lawyers.

    If the SS wins a nobel prize, and has great name recognition, such that study sections will throw money on any work that SS is associated with, then the SS salary will command a larger salary.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    "So to me it doesn't seem like PIs necessarily have a whole lot of extra responsibilities compared to SSs."

    Yeah, definitely. Besides, everyone knows it's really the fancy journal editors that guide the research anyway, and are basically behind the scenes PIs without the title or credit. The obvious solution to the NIH budget woes is to completely eliminate PIs from the grant funding system, and only allow grad students, post-docs, staff scientists, and technicians to apply for and be supported by NIH grants. They are the only ones who do any actual research, and that would free up a vast amount of funds. For example, if you fire my non-actual researching ass, you would free up enough NIH funds to support three whole actual scientific researchers!

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    "So to me it doesn't seem like PIs necessarily have a whole lot of extra responsibilities compared to SSs."

    Yeah, definitely. Besides, everyone knows it's really the fancy journal editors that guide the research anyway, and are basically behind the scenes PIs without the title or credit. The obvious solution to the NIH budget woes is to completely eliminate PIs from the grant funding system, and only allow grad students, post-docs, staff scientists, and technicians to apply for and be supported by NIH grants. They are the only ones who do any actual research, and that would free up a vast amount of funds. For example, if you fire my non-actual researching ass, you would free up enough NIH funds to support three whole actual scientific researchers!

  • AcademicLurker says:

    Apart from bringing in $$, I'd say that a big part of what I bring to the table as a PI that I don't see often even from quite good postdocs is:

    1) Maintaining enough focus that the lab has a coherent research program, as opposed to a bunch of interesting one off projects (while still being flexible enough to pursue new directions).

    and

    2) Shepherding projects through the last 10% that takes them from "cool results" to "published paper". That 10% usually seems to take as much time as the first 90% put together. I've worked with some great postdocs who nevertheless would have had a bunch of neat data and no publication record without some guidance from the PI.

  • Apart from bringing in $$, I'd say that a big part of what I bring to the table as a PI that I don't see often even from quite good postdocs is:

    Ridiculous. You don't even do any actual scientific research. All you do is sit in your office and exploit the creative scientific output of the real actual scientific researchers in your lab. Not only do we need to do away with all these parasitic administrative "deanlets" that just sit at desks and do nothing all day, we need to get rid of the non-researcher parasite PIs that just sit at desks and do nothing all day, except occasionally go out into their labs and waste the time of the real actual scientific researchers by talking to them.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Say, PP, speaking of editorial contributions to the research process...

    http://m.fasebj.org/site/misc/edpolicies.xhtml#changes

  • drugmonkey says:

    PIs also perform the critical role of keeping those hard working postdocs' papers, that are totally ready for submitting, stalled out for mere stylistic edits.

  • physioprof says:

    All substantial changes in authorship (additions, removals, or change of

    order) requested after first submission must be approved by the Editor-in-Chief. Changes must be requested by the corresponding author and sent to journals@faseb.org. The Editor-in-Chief reserves the right to accept the request, reject the request, withdraw the manuscript from consideration/publication, or retract a published article based on the nature and extent of the circumstances related to the request. All decisions by the Editor-in-Chief in these matters are final.

    The Editor-in-Chief's decision on changes in authorship is made in the context of the principle that a person either was or was not an author of a scientific paper in concept, performance and exposition. If a post-doc or associate performed an experiment to comply with a referee's suggestion (or that of an associate editor) he or she should be thanked for technical assistance in the acknowledgments section. Authorship implies a creative contribution (which in the previous example, was actually made by the referee or editor). In many circumstances, the journal would be pleased to list the authors of a paper as originally submitted and to note the technical assistance of the new participants in the acknowledgments section. Authors who do not want to list new participants in the acknowledgments section are asked to withdraw their manuscripts.

    WTMFF??????????????!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!???????!!!!!!!!!!!!!! THIS IS LUNACY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • drugmonkey says:

    I knew you would love that.

  • JustAGrad says:

    Of course the person who proposes the work to get grants in 5-year chunks is, almost by definition, going to be the one who keeps the lab focused (not that SSs couldn't do that, though).

    This is how I currently see the differences in responsibilities of PI vs SS and please let me know if I'm mistaken as I am Just A Grad, you know.

    PI: Fundraiser, master planner
    SS: Science laborer

    PI&SS: manager, mentor/trainer, quality controller, author

    I suppose I imagine that if SSs become a standard thing, then maybe one way to describe the roles of PI and SS in a business analogy is that the PI is the CEO who sets the long-term vision, makes connections, and is the head of the company. The SS is the president and is responsible for keeping the day-to-day operation of the lab smooth and efficient.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    PIs that just sit at desks and do nothing all day

    I resent the implication that I do nothing all day. In addition to commenting on blogs, I also laugh maniacally at the suffering of the downtrodden science serfs while sipping Dom Perignon and taking an occasional bite of caviar salted with delicious graduate student tears.

  • dsks says:

    "WTMFF??????????????!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!???????!!!!!!!!!!!!!! THIS IS LUNACY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

    After reading it I had to go and pour myself a glass of water simply to provide the appropriate spit-take upon re-reading it. Staggering.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    Oh FASEB Journal the chances of my ever submitting a paper to you has stayed at 0%, but much more emphatically now. Based on their ideas about creativity, why aren't the editors or reviewers added as authors? #citetherealauthors

  • Year2_PI says:

    @JustAGrad: The magnitude of responsibility differences between PI and SS is enormous.

    The PI is responsible for producing both science and future scientists. Taking responsibility for others' success is alone an enormous weight. If the PI fails as entrepreneur-scientist OR mentor, not only does his career as PI end, but he has at least set back all the student,postdocs,SS in the lab too. In addition, the PI takes responsibility for making sure all of the above get paid, and ideally takes some responsibility for making sure they are all "fulfilled" with their work and aware of their personal career development.

    Separately, the PI is the lab member ultimately responsible for doing science. A research program is not about pipetting or writing code or microscopy – it is about asking good questions and coming up with a strategy to answer those questions. The PI takes responsibility for teaching postdocs and students how to ask good questions. The SS takes responsibility for teaching postdocs and students skills like microscopy or sequence alignment. The former requires knowledge not only is rare relative to the latter, but also is constantly tested by the "marketplace of ideas" that is peer review.

    Lastly, the PI can generally take off his or her mentor hat and put on some latex gloves when those microscopy or alignment skills are needed.. And that happens all the time!

    As a new PI, these responsibilities are crushing! I worry every night about whether I am being too hard or too easy on my students, if I am fairly treating them, how to get them inspired and in high morale, and where am I going to find the money to pay for them 4 years from now when startup funds are gone and they are not. I carve out extra hours after the kids are in bed to look at data and figure out what it means. I write papers in stolen minutes before teaching undergrads. And when someone is on vacation or out sick, I wean mice and do dissections too. These are not complaints. I LOVE the job. I am trying very hard to become good at it. But to compare these responsibilities to a senior postdoc or SS apples to oranges.

    That is not to say that postdocs/SS don't have their own existential stressors – insecurity chief among them.

    ---

    I am a proponent of SS in general even though I am skeptical of the K05 for the reasons others have outlined. The optimistic "systems-level" view is that this is a first step in reducing the oversupply of trainees by persuading PIs to build around SS instead of postdocs. It will be interesting to see if this is part of a larger effort.

  • jmz4 says:

    PI's also have the benefit of 10+ years in the field, with the expectation that they know their sh*t. Having to own your field like that is an incredible incentive to actually read all those papers and think about them, and to me the #1 quality that distinguishes successful postdocs from the rest. Nothing makes me cringe more at a talk than when a student has to rely on their boss for some relatively straight-forward question.
    Doing actual scientific work is all well and good, but it has to be the *right* scientific work, and at the end of the day, it's on the PI to make sure that happens.

    And as well all know, 90% of all those groundbreaking ideas that wake you up in the middle of the night have already been done (hiding in the negative data of someone's thesis, probably). Good PIs can winnow out the remaining 10%.

    @Quaz
    Yeah, there were some comments about making it an institutional award rather than an individual PI thing. Which I do think would enhance the stated goals of fostering independence and stability for the position, and somewhat avoid the "rich get richer" situation.

    I think to be effective, they'll need to bump the grant to 10 years, and make it mostly non-proposal based. Applicants will need a minimum of 15 years continuous research experience, and will be scored on the breadth of their experience, the rarity of their demonstrated expertise, history of collaboration, letters of recommendation, strength of department, and productivity. Bonus points for letters of collaboration from other PI's or the department, stating how the applicants experience could be of use to their current funded research. Bonus points for demonstrated effective technical mentoring (i.e, point to a paper where a former trainee in the lab has utilized skills taught by the applicant).
    Longterm goals and current projects will be mentioned, but should not have to be overly specific, except when describing how their work is either important to keep a project moving (after trainees left), or provide an intersection between two labs with dovetailing research interests.

    Scoring this kind of thing shouldn't be too hard for PIs to score in study section. There won't be science to evaluate, just applicant quality. Most of it could probably be handled by an HR department. In fact, the universities could probably pre-screen candidates like they do for prestigious fellowships.

  • JustAGrad says:

    I suppose the things about the PI being the one ultimately responsible for doing the science and knowing what is worth pursuing is ideal, but how often is that the reality? I'm the only person on a T32 in my lab and I'm given essentially full independence. What I mean by that is that I come up with what I want to study, I get my own funding for the supplies (this is probably the hardest part as a grad student), I design the work, conduct the work, and write the paper. My PI edits the final manuscript and might have a couple comments on my grant applications, but that's it. The overarching questions I ask aren't being approved by the PI. In fact, the PI doesn't really have much buy-in at all. This has worked well enough or me so far. My PI is big in the field, so if this kind of mentoring is considered bad, it might be considered benign neglect more than anything.

    The other students in my lab are all funded on research grants and are treated like employees who do what the PI says. The PI tells them how their papers should be structured, what results to report, etc. And it goes without saying that the PI designed those studies and won the original grants.

  • drugmonkey says:

    JustAGrad-
    So you are saying that trainee / mentor relationships vary *even within a single lab under one mentor*? Mmmhmmmm. So perhaps your broad sweeping assertions need adjustment?

  • JustAGrad says:

    That's why I asked others to correct me if my understanding was flawed. Thanks for the detailed responses.

  • drugmonkey says:

    There are as many ways to PI as there are PIs.....

  • jmz4 says:

    "I'm the only person on a T32 in my lab and I'm given essentially full independence. "
    -This isn't really the norm in my experience, and when this is the case, I've often seen the student flounder. Obviously your mileage may vary, but I think it's much more typical for a successful student to have heavy mentoring, either from the PI directly, or from a senior postdoc.
    As DM says, different PIs have different styles, and good PI, I'd imagine, wouldn't try to force a single style of interaction on every student. Some will need more help than others.

    Likewise, a staff scientist will have different roles depending on the lab. Some might be in charge of animals, some might be in charge of data analysis, etc.

  • […] topic of support of staff scientists has been discussed extensively recently. NCI announced its intention of initiating a new mechanism for the support of such positions (discussed […]

  • […] idea was discussed by NCI a little bit ago, as discussed in this blog post, in the wake of a hint from Varmus when he left the NCI Director office. The devil will be in the […]

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