Work for hire, part 1

How are postdocs funded in the U.S.?  Beyond the tiny anointed few with private foundation support, the vast majority are supported by the NIH. A minority of them, all US citizens or permanent residents, are funded by NIH fellowships called “National Research Service Awards.” What is the purpose of these awards?

The overall goal of the NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) program is to help ensure that a diverse pool of highly trained scientists is available in appropriate scientific disciplines to address the Nation’s biomedical, behavioral, and clinical research needs.

Pretty clear. But not a lot of alt-career wiggle room. They are paying you to become a research scientist. By any accounting logic, an NRSA-holder who does not become a research scientist is a failure, or a failure of the system. Right?

However, the vast majority of postdocs—and almost all foreign postdocs—are paid out of research funds, again mostly from the NIH. No one knows how many of these there are, because the NIH pretends they do not exist.  I’m guessing most of these are paid from R01s, the purpose of which is the following:

The R01 provides support for health-related research and development based on the mission of the NIH.

And we all know the mission of the NIH:

NIH’s mission is to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.

I’d say these people are on safe ground in terms of becoming consultants or bike mechanics after their postdocs. As long as they contributed to this mission while being paid out of an R01, who cares what they do after? The purpose of research grants is to conduct research, not train scientists. But wait a moment! What if we, as so many have proposed, start providing alt-career training (I still don’t know what the fuck this is) to these people while they are at work? Aha. This would be an even deeper betrayal to the taxpayer than buying pens, a comfortable chair, or checking your Gmail on an R01-funded computer. This is one of many, many reasons the NIH will never give more than lip service to alt-careers: it’s thin ice, congressional accountability-wise. Whether this could potentially place a restrictions, informal or otherwise, on institution who do wish to provide meaningful alt-career training to their postdocs while they are at work remains to be seen, because no such institution, to my knowledge, exists.

So much for concern trolling. Let’s say we did want to set aside 15-20% of our postdocs’ time to pursue courses, internships, or other training that would prepare them to enter a career other than research scientist. Is this in any way a betrayal of those who fund biomedical research…the NIH, congress, and ultimately the tax payer.

Fuck no x1000000.

Because all this “taxpayer rights” nonsense bouncing around twitter discussions of OA and academic research—which is barely distinguishable from the demented tea party populism about what taxes are and how they work—is exactly that: nonsense. With the help of Upton Sinclair, George Orwell, and many, many others, we decided long ago that maximizing efficiency or  resource extraction or utility should never, ever, ever be the sole or primary concern when we are talking about human beings, their dignity, their jobs, and their lives. The slippery slope of constant, rigid accountability and “taxpayer value”—or whenever we debase ourselves to the interests of an institution or far-removed “stakeholder” (shareholders, for example)—leads always to dehumanization and systemic injustice.

I don’t think there is anything quite so dramatic among biomedical PhD holders, but I am pointing out  a previously-discredited (but now neoliberal dogma) kind of reasoning that bugs the shit out of me. First, any one who calls into question the relative accomplishments of publicly-funded research in the last 50 years is a fucking moron. I agree there is a personnel crisis and to a lesser extent a culture crisis in science driven by glam, and much farther down the list, for-profit publishers are assholes … but none of this should be about efficiency or what scientists “owe” the NIH, congress, or taxpayers. It is about what scientists owe each other as individuals and a community.

I admit I’ve made various forms of the taxpayer argument before… specifically, should taxpayers pay for “training” scientists we don’t need? That was ultimately an argument about the relative scientific merits of our current science-done-by-temps system as opposed to science done by fewer, better-paid professional scientists. But do you know who I think should have no say in this whatsoever? Fucking taxpayers.

More after my haircut.

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8 Comments on “Work for hire, part 1”

  1. Interesting point. Let me add that many foreign post-docs (but not yours truly) are paid from foreign grants, so they don’t take away money from US tax payers but from foreign tax payers.

  2. rxnm says:

    Yes… this is probably a comparable number to those on private foundation grants, I think? I’m not sure, maybe more.

    I’m fine with that, as long as they can’t read journal articles paid for by ‘merucun taxpayers. 🙂

  3. Bill says:

    What about NRSA-funded green card holder me, who “paid back” the first year of support in the approved manner by accepting a second year of support (and agreeing to another year of postdocage), and ultimately wound up being spat out by academia for a (so far) soft landing in biotech? Am I a failure of the system, an acceptable outcome, a regrettable anomaly….?

  4. Bill says:

    And are you spending Precious Taxpayer Money on that haircut??

  5. rxnm says:

    1. Industry scientists count as successful outcome for sure.
    2. Yes, the taxpayers here pay my salary, so they paid for my haircut. You should see what they spent on my cat’s pancreas infection.

  6. Bill says:

    Poor kitty! I hope he/she is OK.

  7. […] from the point of view of most public funding agencies, training working scientists is explicitly the purpose of funding their PhDs**. So the idea that you should be 1) preparing them for a wide range of careers, or 2) not making […]


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