Credit: G. Grullón/Science

President's Budget: Bleak Prospects for Postdocs

Last summer Rita Colwell, then National Science Foundation director, told Next Wave of her plans to press for a rise, from $33,000 to $45,000, in NSF's basic postdoctoral stipend for fiscal year 2005. But when President George W. Bush sent Congress his fiscal year 2005 budget proposal on 2 February, it contained no money for any increase in postdoc pay.

Under the new budget proposal, furthermore, competition for new and continuing research grants will stiffen slightly and early-career scientists' prospects of establishing themselves as independent researchers will not improve. The proposal foresees an increased number of National Research Service Award (NRSA) fellows at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But at NSF it projects both a drop in research grants and a rise in graduate fellowships, which together will eventually increase competition for postdoc jobs. And foreign postdocs will face the bleakest prospects of all.

Increases for defense and homeland security, but that's it

The sole exceptions to this grim forecast are postdocs lucky or prescient enough to specialize in fields supported by the departments of defense and homeland security. Unlike the flat or declining research spending forecast for other areas, terrorism- and weapons-related work will enjoy hefty increases. But those growth areas beckon only U.S. citizens able to get security clearance.

The president's budget proposal is, of course, just the starting point for congressional haggling. "There's a lot of discussion that goes on before the enactment of the president's budget" and no telling "what Congress is going to do with those requests," notes Walter Schaffer, acting director of NIH's Office of Extramural Programs. Lawmakers will "clearly have other considerations that they'll want to crank in." But today's record federal deficit, along with the demands of homeland security in the era of terrorism, and of food safety in the era of mad cow disease, do not augur well for hopes that Congress will come up with any substantial additional funding in other research fields.

For postdocs dependent on federal dollars, therefore, the figures in the Bush budget proposal are largely a matter of read 'em and weep. The requested 2005 R&D total is 4.7% above last year's request. If defense and homeland security are excluded, however, the overall rise shrinks to a mere 0.5%. And that half percent is unevenly distributed, with many agencies suffering substantial cuts.

Proposed R&D is down 4% at the U.S. Geological Survey, 8.8% at the Department of Agriculture, and 9% at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with most of the proposed drops in projects specially earmarked by Congress. Whether lawmakers will agree to cuts in these preferred projects is, of course, open to question. The president's budget proposal would see the R part of R&D, research both basic and applied, rise only 0.6% overall. Within that figure, research at the Department of Homeland Security would more than double as the agency moves away from its previous focus on short-term technology development toward expanding the knowledge base. But even within the Department of Defense, research spending would fall by 4.5%. Overall, basic research outside of NIH will see a 2.5% drop.

Tight times at NIH and NSF

At NIH, the era of flush budgets is decidedly over. After doubling between 1998 and 2003, projected NIH expenditures would rise only 2.6% in FY 2005, a figure that Schaffer calls "probably very similar to inflation." Still, he does note some good news: "a slight, 2% increase over 2004" in the budget line for NRSAs. But there's catch: The extra funds "will all go to new slots," raising the total number of NRSA fellows from 17,566 in 2004 to 17,791. The additional slots are probably intended for newer NIH units like the National Institute for Biological Imaging and Bioengineering and the Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities, Schaffer notes.

"There's no raise in the president's budget" for either NRSA stipends or research allowances, he said. The number of new competitive NIH research grants would also remain essentially steady under the budget proposal, with the proposal success rate stationary at about 27%. To maintain this number, increases in existing grants could not exceed approximately 2%, again leaving little or no money to raise postdoc pay or benefits.

Nor, with only a 3% proposed increase for NSF, does the president's budget provide money for the plan that Bush approved in 2002 to double the agency's expenditures in 5 years. On the bright side, total funding for postdocs, both stipend fellows and grant employees, rises 4.9%, but the number of NSF-supported postdocs is simultaneously slated to fall slightly, from an estimated 6240 in 2004 to an estimated 6080 in 2005. Because NSF supports postdocs at a number of different salary levels, that discrepancy may reflect either a slightly different mix of positions, or raises for employees of some fortunate PIs.

Raising postdoc incomes remains "a high-priority, long-range investment strategy for NSF," the agency's budget proposal states. Nonetheless, "the budget did not contain any specific increases" in current NSF postdoc stipends, the agency's budget director, Marty Rubenstein, told Next Wave. "We weren't able, for a variety of reasons, to have something specific [about that] in the '05 budget." An NSF working group is currently studying postdoc issues and may issue a report "sometime in the next few months," she added. But "as of now, and in what's pending before Congress for '05, there's nothing specific that changes any of the things we're doing currently" concerning postdocs.

Employee postdocs on NSF-funded grants thus face a mixed picture. There's good news: Grant size will rise slightly, perhaps permitting PIs to hike pay. But the bad news is the small projected drop in the numbers of NSF-supported senior researchers and "other professionals" and an "overall decrease in the estimated number of awards," according to the budget document. The grant success rate is slated to fall from 24% to 23% and programs aimed at early-career scientists, such as the Faculty Early Career Development Awards and Research Opportunity Awards, are flat. Along with projecting fewer postdoc positions, the budget also foresees 500 additional NSF graduate fellows, who will eventually enter the crowded PhD job market.

Still, Schaffer counsels hope rather than despair. In 2003, "the president's budget requested sufficient money in NRSAs for a 4% stipend increase," he recalled. "And then Congress intervened and provided some additional money at the last minute in conference to give us enough money for a 10% stipend increase. ... It's hard to know what Congress is going to be interested in." And they, not the president, have the final word.

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