Earlier today, we published a blog item (retained below) about proposed postdoc status changes at the University of Maryland (UMD), College Park. That post pointed to an article in The Diamondback, a UMD student publication. After we posted it, an e-mail arrived from Jonathan Dinman, cell biology and molecular genetics department chair and a proponent of the change; the e-mail prompted us to do some reporting of our own. The picture that emerged is more nuanced than the one we presented earlier, but it is also more compelling: It provides an inside look at the forces behind the ever-increasing glut of science postdocs.
The issue of postdoc benefits has been contentious for decades: Are postdocs best viewed as post-graduate students or highly trained professionals? Should the benefits they receive be appropriate for the former or the latter? These questions and others—and the inconsistent answers provided by institutions—led to the seminal 2000 National Academies report, Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers, the creation (by AAAS, the publisher of Science Careers, and Science) of The Postdoc Network, the formation of several postdoc unions, and ultimately to widespread reforms.
“To become competitive in the life sciences and reach productivity levels comparable to our aspirational peers, our campus needs more postdoctoral scholars, not fewer.” —the authors of the letter
Despite having employed postdocs for years, UMD apparently still lacks a specific employment category for them. Until recently, employee postdocs at UMD were classified either as category 15 (“Faculty nontenured, continuing”) or category 25 (“Faculty, contractual”). But recently, UMD’s human resources (HR) department “decided to phase out the Cat25,” Dinman writes in the e-mail. “Thus, recently, we were informed that we should hire postdocs under … the so-called ‘Category 15.’ ” Among the benefits category 15 postdocs are entitled to are tuition remission for classes they take at the university and participation in the state’s retirement program—both expensive and both, Dinman says, lacking a line-item in most National Institutes of Health grants. (The full benefits postdocs in each category are entitled to are described on page nine of UMDs Postdoctoral Fellows Manual.)
Arguing that the changes make postdocs too expensive, UMD life science faculty members pushed back. More than 130 life science faculty members signed on to a letter to Wallace Loh, UMD’s president, arguing that paying for those benefits from research grants will cause “research funding erosion.” The letter calls for the creation of a new, postdoc-specific administrative category that would not be faculty level and would come with benefits appropriate for short-term trainee employees.
“We are just trying to get the university to officially codify the position of ‘postdoc,’ ” Dinman writes in the e-mail. He also writes:
From there, we will have a stable base upon which to hire and promote this group of workers. We ask that they not be considered ‘faculty’ because it is a temporary training position. We ask that this position be entitled to the full suite of health benefits provided to all state employees instead of a stipend that they can use to purchase health insurance on the free market. We ask that they not be entitled to tuition remission, a budget buster that we cannot write into our grant proposals. Finally, we ask that retirement benefits require a vesting period (say three years), and that its institution be phased in over a period of at least three years so that we can write these additional expenses into our grant proposals. These [changes] would place UMD in line with the more generous of our peers in the Big 10.
In a nutshell, UMD would like to be able to treat postdocs the way most other universities treat postdocs. Establishing the new category would require a vote by the university senate—but first it must pass through the faculty affairs committee, which is considering it now.
Not everyone supports the changes. Committee member Ellin Scholnick, who is also the university’s faculty ombuds officer, said the move would be “taking away benefits from the least-paid individuals. … I’m deeply worried about the impact on the post-docs themselves, who already live on the edge,” she told her colleagues at a meeting organized to discuss the proposed changes, according to the Diamondback article.
The letter—which was written by Iqbal Hamza, a professor in the Department of Animal and Avian Sciences, and Norma Andrews, a professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics—illustrates well the forces that push institutions to hire ever-larger numbers of postdocs and demonstrates that, even as faculty and administrators argue that postdocs are trainees, their real utility lies in their ability and willingness to do the work of science cheaply.
“To become competitive in the life sciences and reach productivity levels comparable to our aspirational peers, our campus needs more postdoctoral scholars, not fewer,” the letter’s authors write. “Unfortunately, the unfunded mandate imposed by Cat-15 will … hinder the hiring of a sufficient number of high-quality people, and precipitate the loss of our best faculty to other institutions.”
The letter highlights the forces pushing back against reforms proposed (e.g.) in a 2014 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) article by four leaders of the scientific community, Bruce Alberts, former president of the National Academy of Sciences and former editor-in-chief of Science; Marc W. Kirschner, founding chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School; Shirley Tilghman, former president of Princeton University; and Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate and outgoing director of the National Cancer Institute. The reforms, they argue, are essential to “[r]escu[e] US biomedical research from its systemic flaws”; the same or similar reforms have been proposed or implied by others who have studied the issue.
Prominent among the reforms is reducing the number of postdocs in favor of employing more and better paid staff scientists—very similar to what UMD’s HR department has inadvertently done by banning category 25 and to what UMD’s life science faculty members insist they can’t afford while still remaining competitive with other research universities. Such measures would throw “research groups into the ‘death spiral’: fewer people translate into reduced output, publications in lower-impact journals, a sharper decline in productivity and competitiveness, and eventually, failure to renew funding. This is a recipe for mediocrity and for shuttering research programs,” the letter states.
Within the logic of UMD’s needs—or any university’s needs—the argument makes sense. That same logic, though, if applied nationally and internationally, will perpetuate and worsen the current, damaging glut of early-career scientists. It’s an example of what ecologist Garrett Hardin termed the “tragedy of the commons,” in which pursuing individual self-interest (or, in this case, institutional self-interest) leads to collective disaster. Hardin concluded that such problems have “no technical solution” but require instead concerted joint action by all concerned. The authors of the PNAS article, and their many supporters, have committed themselves to pressing for change. This latest incident makes clear just how difficult achieving those reforms is likely to be.
Numerous respected studies have documented academic postdocs’ dismal remuneration and inconsistent benefits. Attention to the issue has led to widespread reforms. The University of Maryland (UMD), College Park, however, may be going in the other direction: Some faculty members there believe that their institution’s postdoc compensation package is too generous and should be scaled back. Expensive postdoc benefits will cause “research funding erosion,” says a letter written by 131 life sciences professors, according to Andrew Dunn in The Diamondback, a student newspaper at UMD. In the letter, the professors request the creation of a second employment category for postdocs that would confer fewer benefits, the article states. The university’s Faculty Affairs Committee is considering the proposal.
Currently, UMD’s policy is quite progressive, granting postdocs nontenure-track faculty status as well as faculty benefits. According to the university’s Postdoctoral Fellows' Manual, they include health, dental, and vision coverage; life insurance; disability insurance; retirement contributions; paid annual, sick, and personal leave; and tuition remission for a limited number of courses each semester. But if the senate approves the change, new postdocs would not share faculty status and would not receive the faculty benefits package.
Faculty Affairs Committee member Ellin Scholnick, the university’s faculty ombuds officer, doesn’t like the plan; she called the move “taking away benefits from the least-paid individuals. … I’m deeply worried about the impact on the post-docs themselves, who already live on the edge,” she told her colleagues, quoted by Dunn.
Advocates of the change believe that UMD principal investigators need cheaper postdoc labor in order to compete scientifically. “Jonathan Dinman, professor and cell biology and molecular genetics department chair, said the current academic environment requires this new title for postdoctoral students for this university to stay competitive and on track with fellow Big Ten schools,” Dunn writes.
Speaking of competing with Big Ten rivals: Each year, the university spends more than $2 million each on the salaries of men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon and football coach Randy Edsall, and it spends just under $1 million for women’s basketball coach Brenda Frese, according to a 2014 Baltimore Sun article. The three coaches are Maryland’s highest-paid state employees.