Academy Plans Guide to Improve Postdocs' Status

WASHINGTON, D.C.--"I'm taking a risk just being here. Missing a day of work could raise questions about my priorities." That frank statement from Daniel Zuckerman, a physiology postdoc at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore and president of the university's Postdoctoral Association, reflects the vulnerability that many postdocs feel today. But Zuckerman was among friends: His comments were made at a workshop held late last month aimed at reducing that vulnerability for the 40,000 postdocs who contribute mightily to the U.S. research enterprise but rarely receive commensurate pay, rights, or recognition.

Zuckerman and 100 other people crammed into a conference room at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to offer advice to its Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP). The panel is preparing a publication on the status of postdocs, currently a hot topic in academic circles (Science, 3 September 1999, p. 1513). NAS's "Guide to the Postdoctoral Experience" will describe issues facing these fledgling scientists and advise all the players--graduate students, postdocs, mentors and supervisors, university administrators, and the government agencies whose funding keeps the system afloat--of their rights and responsibilities.

Discussion of a draft report ranged from tips on setting up a central postdoc office to questions of whether performance appraisals are an important management tool or a waste of time. But it was pay and working conditions, especially in the life sciences, that brought emotions to a boil. "The issue is one of basic fairness," said immunologist Jack Bennink of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaking about the 2800 postdocs on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus. "If we don't pay them a living wage, in 10 years [U.S. science] will be hurting for talent."

Many participants professed surprise that institutions follow the scale for NIH's National Research Service Award fellows, which starts at $26,252. "We couldn't get approval for anything under $35,000," said Massachusetts Institute of Technology electrical engineer Mildred Dresselhaus, a COSEPUP member who chaired the workshop. And even that amount may be low: NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the National Institute of Standards and Technology pay in the mid- to upper $40s, representatives noted, while Eli Lilly's Jean Labus said the Indiana drug company starts its life science postdocs at $42,000.

Dresselhaus says the guide won't recommend a specific pay floor--"it would be hard to get anything through [NAS] review that was opposed by NIH or the biomedical community," she confesses--or prescribe certain practices. "But we hope people will use it as a basis for further discussion."