Developing Science Workforce Policy: 2nd National Postdoc Network Meeting, Keynote Address

Editor's Note: John H. Marburger, III, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and Science Policy Advisor to the President of the United States, presented the keynote address at the 2002 Postdoc Network meeting. We are encouraged by his willingness to work with postdocs, faculty, administrators, and funding agency officials to try to address the federal-level workforce issues facing postdocs. Dr. Marburger has shared the text of his speech, which we are pleased to publish on the Postdoc Network.

I thank the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and especially Laurel Haak for inviting me to speak at this 2nd Annual Postdoc Network national meeting. Laurel did not have to twist my arm very hard, because as soon as I heard about the Network I realized its importance. When Becky Ham, from the AAAS public relations office, asked me for "a general remark on why [my] office is concerned with enhancing the postdoctoral experience," I wrote the following paragraph without hesitation, and sent it by return e-mail:

"OSTP is interested in the postdoc experience because postdocs are among the richest sources of creativity in our system of university based research. These are young people just emerging from their doctoral experience and ready to participate as equal partners in the research enterprise. They are developing leadership skills in their roles as mentors to graduate and undergraduate students, and even junior faculty, who comprise the research groups in which they do their work. In most groups, the postdocs are in the best position to recognize when a new result may be a significant discovery. They tend to reach across disciplinary boundaries more readily than graduate students, who are focused on their dissertation work, or faculty, who have a large investment in their own fields. Consequently, postdocs are often the leaders in emerging interdisciplinary fields. These are observations based on my direct experience with postdocs over the years. I am not aware of studies that trace research productivity to postdocs, but there is no question that they are important sources of U.S. leadership in science and technology."

My office, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, is responsible for coordinating the science programs and policies of the Federal Government to ensure they meet the needs of all sectors of American society. Not only do we advise the President and the White House, but we work with all the federal agencies, with Congress, with state and local governments, with the higher education and science communities, and with the international science community. That is a tall order, but it is all contained in the original legislation that created the office in 1976. Later in this talk I will describe my office in more detail, and explain how we interact with the federal policy and budget process.

Postdoctoral students have become an important part of the scientific workforce in the United States, and they cannot be ignored in forming policies for funding research and development. I was very pleased to see the National Academy's report in 2000 on "Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisors, Institutions, Funding Organizations." This report stimulated a number of activities and reviews around the country that are cited in the articles by Emily Klotz that have appeared on the AAAS Web site.

I strongly endorse the principles and recommendations in the National Academy of Sciences report. If you are not aware of the Three Principles, let me read them to you:

"1. The postdoctoral experience is first and foremost a period of apprenticeship for the purpose of gaining scientific, technical, and professional skills that advance the professional career.

"2. Postdocs should receive appropriate recognition (including lead author credit) and compensation (including health insurance and other fringe benefits) for the contributions they make to the research enterprise.

"3. To ensure that postdoctoral appointments are beneficial to all concerned, all parties to the appointments--the postdoc, the postdoc adviser, the host institution, and funding organizations--should have a clear and mutually-agreed-upon understanding with regard to the nature and purpose of the appointment."

Most of the problems associated with postdoc status are what I would describe as labor issues. Many of them could be solved if our research institutions could agree on a common language to describe the numerous positions that are covered by the word "postdoc." In most cases the title refers to an entry-level research position attached to a research group led by a faculty member or principal investigator of a research program. The problems stem from the diversity of funding sources and policies within agencies, and the relatively weak institutional control exerted over personnel policies for these positions. The emergence of postdoc offices at many universities is a good sign, and they can provide centers of action for needed improvements.

The good news is that a relatively small number of institutions can have a disproportionate impact on postdoc policies. Most postdocs are concentrated in a relatively few research universities and national laboratories. (If you are a postdoc, chances are you are a biomedical researcher working in California.) That is why the postdoc network idea is potentially a very powerful one. Communicating about best practices, and bringing data on postdoc issues to the attention of institutional and government officials will inevitably lead to improvements. Because postdocs play such an important role in the nation's science enterprise, we cannot afford to ignore conditions that adversely affect the attractiveness of postdoc positions.

The emerging Postdoc Network has captured my attention, and I will include postdoc issues in the workforce agenda of OSTP. I promise to raise the visibility of these issues within the Science Committee of the National Science and Technology Council, and to explore interagency actions that might be taken to make treatment of postdoctoral positions more uniform among agencies.

[The remainder of this address summarized OSTP structure and operation, and outlined the annual steps of the federal budget process.]

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