Eroding benefits for UMD postdocs? [REVISED]

The issue of postdoc benefits has been contentious for decades: Are postdocs best viewed as post-graduate students or highly trained professionals? Should the benefits they receive be appropriate for the former or the latter? These questions and others—and the inconsistent answers provided by institutions—led to the seminal 2000 National Academies report, Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers, the creation (by AAAS, the publisher of Science Careers, and Science) of The Postdoc Network, the formation of several postdoc unions, and ultimately to widespread reforms.

To become competitive in the life sciences and reach productivity levels comparable to our aspirational peers, our campus needs more postdoctoral scholars, not fewer.

Despite having employed postdocs for years, UMD apparently still lacks a specific employment category for them. Until recently, employee postdocs at UMD were classified either as category 15 (“Faculty nontenured, continuing”) or category 25 (“Faculty, contractual”). But recently, UMD’s human resources (HR) department “decided to phase out the Cat25,” Dinman writes in the e-mail. “Thus, recently, we were informed that we should hire postdocs under … the so-called ‘Category 15.’ ” Among the benefits category 15 postdocs are entitled to are tuition remission for classes they take at the university and participation in the state’s retirement program—both expensive and both, Dinman says, lacking a line-item in most National Institutes of Health grants. (The full benefits postdocs in each category are entitled to are described on page nine of UMDs .)

Arguing that the changes make postdocs too expensive, UMD life science faculty members pushed back. More than 130 life science faculty members signed on to a letter to Wallace Loh, UMD’s president, arguing that paying for those benefits from research grants will cause “research funding erosion.” The letter calls for the creation of a new, postdoc-specific administrative category that would not be faculty level and would come with benefits appropriate for short-term trainee employees.

“We are just trying to get the university to officially codify the position of ‘postdoc,’ ” Dinman writes in the e-mail. He also writes:

From there, we will have a stable base upon which to hire and promote this group of workers. We ask that they not be considered ‘faculty’ because it is a temporary training position. We ask that this position be entitled to the full suite of health benefits provided to all state employees instead of a stipend that they can use to purchase health insurance on the free market. We ask that they not be entitled to tuition remission, a budget buster that we cannot write into our grant proposals. Finally, we ask that retirement benefits require a vesting period (say three years), and that its institution be phased in over a period of at least three years so that we can write these additional expenses into our grant proposals. These [changes] would place UMD in line with the more generous of our peers in the Big 10.

In a nutshell, UMD would like to be able to treat postdocs the way most other universities treat postdocs. Establishing the new category would require a vote by the university senate—but first it must pass through the faculty affairs committee, which is considering it now.

Not everyone supports the changes. Committee member Ellin Scholnick, who is also the university’s faculty ombuds officer, said the move would be “taking away benefits from the least-paid individuals. … I’m deeply worried about the impact on the post-docs themselves, who already live on the edge,” she told her colleagues at a meeting organized to discuss the proposed changes, according to the Diamondback article.

The letter—which was written by Iqbal Hamza, a professor in the Department of  Animal and Avian Sciences, and Norma Andrews, a professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics—illustrates well the forces that push institutions to hire ever-larger numbers of postdocs and demonstrates that, even as faculty and administrators argue that postdocs are trainees, their real utility lies in their ability and willingness to do the work of science cheaply.

“To become competitive in the life sciences and reach productivity levels comparable to our aspirational peers, our campus needs more postdoctoral scholars, not fewer,” the letter’s authors write. “Unfortunately, the unfunded mandate imposed by Cat-15 will … hinder the hiring of a sufficient number of high-quality people, and precipitate the loss of our best faculty to other institutions.”

Prominent among the reforms is reducing the number of postdocs in favor of employing more and better paid staff scientists—very similar to what UMD’s HR department has inadvertently done by banning category 25 and to what UMD’s life science faculty members insist they can’t afford while still remaining competitive with other research universities. Such measures would throw “research groups into the ‘death spiral’: fewer people translate into reduced output, publications in lower-impact journals, a sharper decline in productivity and competitiveness, and eventually, failure to renew funding. This is a recipe for mediocrity and for shuttering research programs,” the letter states.

Within the logic of UMD’s needs—or any university’s needs—the argument makes sense. That same logic, though, if applied nationally and internationally, will perpetuate and worsen the current, damaging glut of early-career scientists. It’s an example of what ecologist Garrett Hardin termed the “tragedy of the commons,” in which pursuing individual self-interest (or, in this case, institutional self-interest) leads to collective disaster. Hardin concluded that such problems have “no technical solution” but require instead concerted joint action by all concerned. The authors of the PNAS article, and their many supporters, have committed themselves to pressing for change. This latest incident makes clear just how difficult achieving those reforms is likely to be.


Biologist Engineer Brewer

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