Universities, funding agencies, and lab chiefs have long justified postdocs’ paltry pay and long hours on the grounds that the young scientists are gaining valuable training from mentors, even though many don’t. Now, thanks to a new federal law, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is taking steps that could assure postdocs the scientific and career development training that their positions implicitly promise but often fail to deliver.
From now on, researchers hoping for one of the 11,000 grants funded each year will have to document the mentoring they provide their postdocs. Given the requirements of the NSF grant process and today’s tight funding, it is possible that lab chiefs desperate for an edge in the grants competition could turn postdoc services into a new arena in which to try to outshine rivals. But the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, with more than 50,000 funded investigators, takes a much less transparent approach. The NIH mission, states the agency’s Web site, can “only be accomplished if the NIH also provides support for the training of the next generation of scientists.” The “support” provided to postdocs can include mentoring “to the extent that mentoring activities are not readily separable from activities related to supervising the participation of students and postdoctorates in the funded research project.” Mentoring, in short, is an option for principal investigators (PIs) focused on meeting other goals, but not an obligation encouraged or even facilitated by NIH.
America COMPETES … for postdocs
Section 7008 of the America COMPETES (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science) Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law on 9 August, requires all proposals for NSF grants that will support postdocs to “include a description of the mentoring activities that will be provided …under the Foundation’s broader impacts merit review criterion. Mentoring activities may include career counseling, training in preparing grant applications, guidance on ways to improve teaching skills, and training in research ethics.” Investigators who win funding must describe “the mentoring activities provided" in their annual and final reports. Depending on how NSF interprets this provision, the incentives shaping treatment of postdocs could change sharply--from viewing them as cheap labor to demonstrating serious attention to their professional growth.
NSF judges proposals on two major criteria: intellectual merit and broader impact, the latter of which can include education, increased public understanding of science, and other benefits to society. A proposal lacking mention of broader impacts “is returned without review,” James Lightbourne, NSF's senior advisor for the integration of research & education, tells Science Careers. Official, public attention to mentoring began at NSF even before the new law was passed, in a 2 August 2006 “Dear Colleague” letter from Margaret Leinen, assistant director of NSF’s Directorate for Geosciences, which alerted potential proposers to “the importance of providing professional development and mentoring” to postdocs. Leinen went on to “remind” her readers “to include descriptions of the efforts in the Broader Impacts” section. She encouraged "all awardees--particularly those with no previous experience as a postdoctoral supervisor--to explore the full range of activities that contribute to a meaningful postdoctoral experience,” including those for “facilitating transitions into and out of the postdoctorate and … enhanc[ing] the development and choices of careers.”
NSF doesn’t require PIs at universities to re-invent the wheel, Lightbourne notes. Many institutions “have come quite a way in providing mentoring and support to their postdocs,” so “it makes sense for the mentoring to be tied in with what the institution offers rather than everyone creating their own” mentoring approach. This means that universities that have already developed good postdoc programs have inadvertently given their faculty a leg up in the NSF-grant sweepstakes. Researchers at other universities may begin demanding better university-provided postdoc services to level the playing field.
Documenting successful mentoring in Arlington and Chevy Chase
There's also now encouragement for tracking career outcomes. “PIs may also find it useful to track the career pathways of postdocs after the appointment … to document successes that may have resulted from their professional development efforts,” Leinen’s letter continued.
Another prestigious funder goes much farther, requiring researchers to prove successful mentoring, not just good intentions. Applicants aiming to become--or remain--Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigators must “provide ahead of time … a list of all their trainees--graduate students and postdocs--from the last 10 year period" including "the names of the people, … what they did subsequently, when they left the lab, and what they’re doing currently,” HHMI president Thomas Cech tells Science Careers. Reviewers can then judge whether trainees “make a timely exit from the lab, … have a reasonable length of time in the lab, [and] end up getting a good position.”
That doesn't necessarily mean a research job at a prestigious university. “We all realize that not everyone is going to end up being a professor and that there are a variety of worthy careers,” Cech continues. HHMI does, however, expect to see its investigators’ former postdocs in jobs that use their scientific training: “in a government lab, research institute, or the commercial sector, doing something in biotech or the pharmaceutical industry. … If everybody from a lab ended up … going to Wall Street or getting an MBA or going to law school, you’d … start wondering why this person was driving everybody out of research science,” Cech says. “The impact of … research discoveries,” is the primary basis for selection, but mentoring “is an important secondary factor” that can be “influential” in close decisions.
Meanwhile, in Bethesda
NIH, the nation’s largest funder, neither requires nor particularly encourages mentoring but does permit it at the PI’s option. The policies governing NIH grants, contained in a document called Office of Management and Budget Circular A-21, do not include a broader impacts criterion, although PIs and postdocs each have a “dual role” as persons who are simultaneously both working on a specific research project and giving or receiving training, says Walter Schaffer, NIH senior scientific adviser for extramural research, in an interview with Science Careers.
NIH “recognizes that faculty’s activities often have mixed objectives”--producing research results, as well as providing education to postdocs and grad students--and therefore that “faculty time is often inexorably mixed,” adds Joseph Ellis of NIH's Office of Policy for Extramural Research Administration. “Mentoring activity [that] occurs somewhere within the broad umbrella of supporting and managing research” is permissible under NIH rules, Ellis says, although he declines to specify exactly what a mentor can or cannot do. “I don’t think that [NIH guidance] is meant to be at that level of precision,” he explained. “Engagement with the [trainee] is primarily through their activity on the research project, and any discussion … would fall under that activity. … If, in the course of the day, faculty spend some time talking about their career and careers in general, it wouldn’t be something they would have to keep a note of in a logbook and say, ‘Oh, this isn’t research-related.’”
Within NIH’s overall approach, faculty members should take guidance from their university’s policies and practices on mentoring, he continues. “The institutions themselves have a responsibility to establish policies and procedures for implementing [NIH] requirements.” For example, “if the institutions offered a training opportunity, it’s normal that you would give people time to attend such things“ as an aspect of their work. “It’s part of their normal business operations and expectations,” Ellis says.
Attending training sessions or scientific meetings can be legitimate parts of a postdoc’s participation under a grant because they can “directly benefit the [research] project,” allowing the postdoc to improve skills, “make contacts, and develop collaborations,” Shaffer adds. “There’s no metric” for faculty or postdoc time, Ellis says. “As long as [mentoring activities] stay within the basic requirements [as outlined in the Circular A-21], there’s latitude in implementation that allows [PIs] to tailor that to their institutional practices and profiles.”
A tale of two agencies
In Arlington, Virginia, how much the NSF initiative will improve postdocs’ lot remains to be seen. The description of the broader impact criterion is being revised in light of the new law, Lightbourne says. “So far, NSF hasn’t defined what mentoring is” and usually “waits to see what ideas proposers suggest” in developing a new initiative. “We’ll have to figure out how best to infuse it throughout the whole foundation.”
One thing is certain, though: Even under the most mentoring-friendly interpretation of NIH's rather murky rules, NIH investigators have no real incentive to provide high-quality mentoring. Until that changes, they remain free to continue shortchanging their postdocs if they wish.
*Photo-top: Everett Foreman (left), an engineer with the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture mentors a Florida A&M student. Courtesy, Agricultural Research Service. Credit: Keith Weller.