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Q&A With Rita Colwell, Director of the National Science Foundation


Editors' Note: We on the Next Wave Staff wanted to know what scientists who play a role in the policy making process thought about the situation of postdocs. So, we sent out an email with some questions. The one scientific leader who cared enough about young scientists to respond was Rita Colwell, Director of the National Science Foundation. Here are her answers to our questions.

Next Wave: Should there be a limit on the number of years any one scientist can work as a postdoc?

Colwell: Yes. The idea of a postdoc is to assist a Ph.D. graduate in preparing for a career and steady employment. The position was never envisioned as a career in and of itself.

NW: Do you consider postdocs to be trainees or employees?

Colwell: This essentially comes down to a question of benefits. A number of my colleagues here at NSF have discussed this issue at length. Most institutions would not cover health and other benefits for postdocs unless they are on the payroll as "faculty" or employees. Postdocs often fall in the cracks because they are not considered students either and therefore do not qualify for student benefits. Ideally, postdocs should be employees even though they are still "in training."

NW: From a training point of view, are industry and academic postdocs of equal merit?

Colwell: It's impossible to generalize. It all depends on what kind of experience they receive while working as a postdoc.

NW: Are you now or have you ever been a postdoc? If so, for how long?

Colwell: I was a Visiting Scientist at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) in the Division of Applied Biology with Norman Gibbons. Because of nepotism rules at that time, my postdoctoral fellowship award could not be made because my husband was also awarded an NRC Postdoctoral Fellowship at the same time. Because I was successful in obtaining my own funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation (as Research Assistant Professor at the University of Washington, on leave to work at the NRC in Ottawa, Canada), I was essentially an "independent postdoctoral fellow" for 2 years.

NW: Should the federal funding agencies play a role in determining standard salaries, benefits, career training, and rules governing working conditions for postdocs?

Colwell: It almost goes without saying that an elevated discussion of all these issues is long overdue. NSF's Survey of Doctoral Recipients shows that both the percentage of S&E Ph.D.s ever in a postdoc and the median length of time spent in a postdoc have risen over time. The increased attention being devoted to this topic is therefore both warranted and welcome.

It would nevertheless be inappropriate (if not impossible) for the federal government to determine standards for salary and benefit packages--just as it would be for the government to determine faculty salaries. Postdocs are supported by a variety of sources, including many private foundations. In addition, different fields require different levels of expertise. A one-size-fits-all approach would not work.

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