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People of the Year: Future of Research's postdoc activists

Each December, Science Careers names a “Person of the Year” to recognize those who have made especially significant and sustained contributions to improving the lot of early-career scientists. Up to now, each year’s honoree has been a senior academic figure occupying a prestigious post. This year’s choice, by contrast, is plural; of a different generation; and at the opposite end of the academic status ladder. For their dedicated, creative, and expanding efforts to empower early-career and aspiring scientists with knowledge and awareness so that they can take control of their futures and help bring needed change to the scientific enterprise, we are delighted to name the activists of the Future of Research (FoR) movement as the 2015 Science Careers People of the Year.

FoR’s “overarching” goal is “to improve the overall research enterprise,” says Gary McDowell, a postdoc at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, and one of the movement’s initiators. “We … want to advocate for the interests of early-career scientists,” adds Jessica Polka, a postdoc at Harvard Medical School and another of the original band of activists. Beyond that, she continues, “we believe that the challenges facing early-career researchers because of hypercompetition are damaging the efficiency of science” at large.

It began in Boston in 2013, when a group of young scientists found that they shared both a sense that something is seriously wrong with the research enterprise and a desire to educate themselves about how to improve it.

—Beryl Lieff Benderly

FoR is a grassroots movement rather than an organization—a loose, dynamic “network of people around the country who are in touch” with one another, according to McDowell. It began in Boston in 2013, when a group of young scientists found that they shared both a sense that something is seriously wrong with the research enterprise and a desire to educate themselves about how to improve it. They saw that understanding “the structure of the research enterprise was very important” for understanding today’s glutted academic labor market and intense competition for funding, Polka recalls. So, being scientists, they “wanted to have a meeting … to talk about it,” she continues. The movement has since spread beyond Boston to other cities where like-minded people have also taken up the cause.

As more and more research community leaders become convinced that the current combination of intense competition for funding, lack of faculty job opportunities, and increasing demoralization among younger researchers is untenable, discussions about how to fix the situation “are going to take place with [early-career scientists] or without us,” Polka says. “We need to be involved. … [It’s] our responsibility to know and care about these issues, [and] there’s no way of us entering the conversation without being informed.” Furthermore, in the words of the FoR website, “as future leaders, junior scientists are uniquely poised to shape the culture and practice of science in response to these challenges.”

Not surprisingly for a group of highly intelligent people, “we don't have complete consensus” on a number issues, Polka explains. But “we definitely agree” that “too many scientists [are] competing for too few resources.” The movement is interested in “not only providing support for young scientists, but [also] in some sort of systemic action”—as yet undetermined—to make things better, she continues. “We are more interested in starting the conversation than in advancing any particular agenda.”

Remarkably, the volunteers actively sharing ideas, gathering information, planning events, and generally spreading the word are biomedical postdocs—a group not generally thought to have extra time and resources sufficient to launch and sustain a national, and potentially international, effort. “We rely heavily on splitting work among multiple people,” Polka says. “Certain people will take the lead on certain things when they have time,” McDowell adds.

Building awareness

“Awareness is the first step toward any kind of change,” Polka says. Thus far, FoR’s main activity has been organizing symposia where early-career scientists learn about and discuss the financial, historical, and political forces shaping today’s academic research enterprise. The gatherings aim to “mak[e] people aware of what data there is out there and encourage the [collection] of more data so that we as young scientists can be informed about the workforce situation, the training situation, [and] how funding works,” she continues. McDowell adds that an important goal is presenting “a realistic view of where people are going, as far as we know, and what jobs are available [and] the economics of the system, [in order] to challenge those people who say there isn’t a problem.” Written reports and video recordings preserve what has been said and learned.

Already, ad hoc local groups have organized meetings in Boston in 2014 and this year in Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, and Boston. At each, hundreds of young scientists listened to and interacted with experts and senior academic figures and participated in panels and discussions. Colleagues in other cities “got in touch with us and we worked together” to help organize their meetings, McDowell notes. Each local group worked “more or less independent[ly], except that we all try to talk to one another and coordinate and assist with the planning,” Polka adds. The FoR website, created by the Boston group, offers advice on how to organize a symposium.

“Certainly for Boston, the assumption is that [the meeting] will be annual,” McDowell says, and indications are that those who organized and attended the other meetings feel the same. “There is huge interest among postdocs and graduate students,” Polka says. Discussions are underway about holding a meeting in the Washington, D.C., area and potentially in Atlanta. Beyond that, “a lot of people internationally are following what is going on,” McDowell says. 

The growing movement and the work needed to maintain momentum, record and preserve institutional memory, and assist newly interested groups has, however, already outstripped the ability of volunteers with other demanding responsibilities to stay abreast. The Boston leadership is therefore working to establish and fund a nonprofit organization that could pay an executive director to devote full time to the effort. Local groups would maintain their independence.

The work of building the movement has been hard, but it has not all been serious. An online sale of “Riffraff” T-shirts, satirizing a senior academic figure's memorable criticism of the current generation of young scientists, not only raised the fashion standard in numerous labs, but also hundreds of dollars to support the 2015 Boston meeting. (Orders for a second printing of the T-shirts are now being accepted.)

So, for their energy, enthusiasm, intelligence, and humor in working to empower early-career scientists to shape their own futures and for their dedication to assuring a robust research enterprise, the nationwide network of volunteer postdoc activists of the FoR movement are the 2015 Science Careers People of the Year.

Future of Research postdocs

Future of Research postdocs

Credit: C. Pickett, ASBMB

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