NIH Makes A Good Move For Post-Docs

But there’s still more that’s needed. A while ago, I predicted that, were the Obama administration to raise the overtime salary ceiling to around $50,000 (if you work more than forty hours per week and earn under this amount, you qualify for overtime), then we would see NIH post-doc salaries move to slightly above the salary ceiling. Well, what do you know (boldface mine):

The Department of Labor’s recently announced revisions to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) will make more than 4 million currently exempt U.S. workers eligible for overtime pay, unless their salaries are raised. Among them are an estimated 37,000 to 40,000 junior scientists who have emerged as critical players in modern biomedical research. There has been considerable concern in both the public and private sectors about how this change will affect the United States’ ability to carry out leading edge research in an efficient, cost-effective manner. But as leaders of the nation’s biomedical research and labor agencies, we are confident the transition can be made in a way that does not harm — and actually serves to enrich — the future of our research enterprise….

Many biomedical postdocs are supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), either through specific grants, known as Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSA), or through standard research grants awarded to their laboratory chief, typically known as a Principal Investigator. Despite the postdocs’ extensive training, expertise, and high level of responsibility, many experts believe their starting salaries are too low. For example, in the first three years after receiving their degree, NRSA awardees currently receive awards of $43,692; $45,444; and $47,268 — all below the newly issued overtime threshold.

Under the new FLSA overtime threshold, universities, teaching hospitals, and other institutions that employ postdocs have a choice: they can carefully track their fellows’ hours and pay overtime, or they can raise their salaries to levels above the threshold and thereby qualify them for exemption. Biomedical science, by its very nature, is not work that neatly falls into hourly units or shifts. So, from our vantage point, it seems that the only option consistent with the professional nature of scientific work is to increase salaries above the threshold.

As Drugmonkey points out, most post-docs aren’t paid with NRSA awards–they are funded with bread-and-butter R01 grants (or other mechanisms). And it’s one thing to ‘encourage’ institutions to pay more, but ultimately, NIH will have to put up more money (and for the love of the Intelligent Designer, increase the maximum a modular proposal can request from $250,000 to $300,000–it’s about time).

That said, NIH doesn’t really have a choice if they don’t want a massive brain drain from the academic pipeline:

If we head over to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we can see what the salary distribution of various life scientists is. For “Medical Scientists, Except Epidemiologists” (19-1042; essentially, people with advanced degrees), the 25th percentile has an estimated annual salary of $55,870. The tenth percentile is $43,150. Remember that the salary distribution includes all of the disgruntledocs making less than the tenth percentile overall. Furthermore, we can push a bunch more buttons and see how the data break out by sector (.xlsx file). In most non-academic and non-charity sectors, the tenth percentile makes more than your typical disgruntledoc; in many cases, more than the possible increase to $50,440. If we look at life scientists (19-1099), the picture is pretty similar.

This is arguably grounds for disgruntletudeness.

It certainly puts the lie to the notion that post-docs couldn’t earn a comparable or better wage outside of academia. It’s clearly not the money that’s keeping post-docs around. Might not want to shit all over them.

So this is good news, but I think NIH will eventually just have to raise the base rate to the overtime minimum.

By the way, if you really do love science (as opposed to checking out its ass), then you should think about the funding side of things, as unsexy as that is. Might even want to do some advocacy or something. Because there’s no science fairy: all those cool stories you read about require money. More money going to post-docs (a good thing!) on a fixed budget means less money going to other costs.

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