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What do young scientists want?

When hundreds of Boston-area postdocs and graduate scientists gathered in early October for the postdoc-organized Future of Research (FOR) Symposium, the organizers promised a consensus document that, as lead organizer Jessica Polka told Science Careers, “people can point to and say, ‘This is what the postdocs are worried about.’ ”

That document, “Shaping the Future of Research: a perspective from junior scientists,” has now been published at F1000Research. More a report than a manifesto, it describes the symposium’s various sessions and details surveys and comments of participants. It advocates three principles distilled from the discussions as the basis for “future activities towards scientific reform:”

As the engine of academic research, junior scientists must be given a voice fitting their role as major stakeholders in the scientific enterprise.

—Shaping the Future of Research
  • “[I]ncreased connectivity among junior scientists and other stakeholders to promote discussions on reforming the structure of the scientific enterprise.”
  • “[I]ncreased transparency. This includes the number and career outcomes of trainees, as well as the expectations of the balance between employment and training in individual postdoctoral appointments.”
  • “Increased investment in junior scientists, with increased numbers of grants that provide financial independence from Principal Investigator (PI) research grants, and increased accountability for the quality of training as a requirement of funding approval.”

“Junior scientists must take a larger role in engaging with these issues,” the report says. “As the engine of academic research, junior scientists must be given a voice fitting their role as major stakeholders in the scientific enterprise. Equally, junior scientists must be educated about their role so that they have the context necessary to make a well-informed contribution and to effectively advocate for their interests.”

The report proposes several sound though familiar reforms, such as funding postdocs on fellowships rather than PI grants, reducing the size of labs, employing more staff scientists, and providing training in nonscientific professional skills. “If you’re going to call me a trainee, then train me,” a participant said, quoted in the report.

It also makes a suggestion that is original, could be relatively cheap to realize, and could prove effective as an instrument of improvement:

[We] propose the creation of  a website for trainees to anonymously publish feedback on their training experiences and outcomes, ideally using the IDP [Individual Development Plan] … as a framework. Trainees might complete an IDP, then later return to the site to report on their progress. Data, aggregated at the departmental or program level, would form part of a training score for the department and institution. This would permit prospective students and fellows to factor this information into their career decisions, thereby rewarding institutions that place an emphasis on training with improved student and fellow recruitment. Incorporating this score into the grant review process would encourage departments to invest in training. The website could also facilitate publication of institutions’ training plans [outlining] available career development opportunities. This could encourage the creation of de facto universal standards for training.

The report lacks proposals for serious steps to bring fundamental structural change, including a strategy for overcoming the deeply entrenched and powerful economic interests and the effective lobbying apparatus that perpetuate the current system of using students and postdocs as cheap laboratory labor. Mentioning this does not constitute criticism of the conference’s efforts, as none of the other documents that have called for reform over the years have come to grips with this thorny issue, either. “Given the limited time of the workshops and the varied background of the participants in terms of their perspective on the current system and its challenges, a consensus on specific steps to be taken was not achieved,” the report states. The FOR conference and the report were conceived as initial steps in a larger, multipronged effort.

“Postdocs do not yet have a coherent voice, and we must change this,” the report says. “Postdoctoral associations should be advocating for access to training, both in provision and time allowance, in their institutions. The National Postdoctoral Association should have a stronger voice in advocating for postdoctoral training at a national level. Trainees should involve themselves with their learned societies to influence policy. Finally, researchers should be involving the wider public: to describe what can be given to society, to demonstrate their value, and also to highlight the waste of human capital and taxpayer money that goes into funding inadequate training.”

“As we take our places as the next generation of independent academic scientists, we can influence the culture, efficiency, and integrity of research from within,” the report continues. The hopeful idealism of that last sentence has particular poignancy because, of course, “the prevailing conditions” in the workforce will prevent many conference participants from ever becoming “independent academic scientists.”

Nonetheless, the document ends, “it is clear that junior scientists are invested in and passionate about these issues. We all must now rise to the challenge of taking action to build a sustainable, productive, and equitable scientific community.”

Here’s hoping that they succeed. You can read the report here.