For years, U.S. postdocs have been complaining about paltry salaries, lack of benefits, and lowly status. This week, they won some high-level support. A committee of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine has validated many of the complaints and lent its considerable weight to efforts to provide greater institutional support for postdocs. At the same time, however, the panel sidestepped two burning issues by explicitly declining to recommend a boost in postdoc salaries or take a position on whether to curtail the size of the postdoc workforce, which has more than doubled in the past 20 years to an estimated 52,000 ( see graph).

The recommendations are contained in a guide * issued this week by the academies' Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. The panel concludes that postdocs are "indispensable" to U.S. science but that low pay and uncertain job prospects have made them disgruntled. An electronic survey of leading research institutions conducted by the committee documents both the relative poverty and the precarious status of postdocs, including the fact that only about half of their academic employers provide them with vacation time and sick leave, and almost 60% give advisers complete control over the length of postdoctoral appointments. "Although many postdocs have stimulating and productive research experiences under the supervision of attentive, thoughtful mentors," says panel chair Maxine Singer, president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, many also receive "embarrassingly low pay and meager benefits."

Growing force. Led by an explosion in the life sciences, postdocs have become a major force in academic research over the past 20 years.

SOURCE: SURVEY OF GRADUATE STUDENTS AND POSTDOCTORATES IN SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING, 1980-1998

The report says that the low salaries--averaging $28,000 for starting postdocs in 1998--are largely the result of a decision by universities not to supplement National Research Service Awards (NRSA), stipends provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to cover training expenses. By not doing so, the panel notes, universities have made the NRSA levels the "de facto funding standard" for all academic-based postdocs.

Apart from pay, the panel urges institutions to adopt a common definition for postdocs and policies for their appointment, training, compensation, evaluation, and career guidance. It also recommends that universities set up a central office to handle postdoc affairs and emphasizes that faculty members should view postdocs as "apprentices" who require mentoring rather than as a "pair of hands" to carry out research at the bench. "Everybody has to ante up," says Singer about the issues facing the scientific community. "If everybody points to somebody else, then nothing will happen."

Several academic administrators and science managers give the report high marks. "I think the scientific community would be well advised to take these recommendations very, very seriously," says Michael Teitelbaum, program director for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which helped pay for the study and which is supporting the creation of a national postdoc network ( nextwave.sciencemag.org). Joel Oppenheim, an associate dean at the New York University School of Medicine, also welcomes the panel's advice but adds, "it's just a report. The real power to change things lies with the funding agencies, in particular NIH and the National Science Foundation." Walter Schaffer, research training officer at NIH, which helped fund the study, says that "I think they did a heck of a job. Most of what they are saying is right on."

Some observers claim, however, that the academies' panel downplayed what they see as the "exploitation" of postdocs by institutions that depend on them to get the work done. "They don't want to alienate the university faculty, who would have to pay higher salaries out of their grants," says Letitia Yao, a former chemistry postdoc and current staff member at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, who helped form one of the first postdoc associations at the University of California, San Francisco. "It all comes down to money: If institutions were paying postdocs 45 or 50 thousand [dollars], they'd also treat them right. You wouldn't even need a guide."

Jack Bennink, a section chief at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, believes that the status of postdocs is a moral as well as an economic issue. "In many cases their treatment borders on abuse and exploitation," he says. At the same time, Bennink agrees with Schaffer and others that the best course is "to make small fixes on a problem that is really, really complex."

With three-quarters of the postdocs working in the life sciences, many officials look to NIH for answers. And they see its growing budget as a painless way to boost salaries without trimming the number of postdoc slots and disrupting research. Schaffer agrees that the report puts pressure on NIH to raise its NRSA stipends from the current $26,916 starting point. But he says that it's not clear what the standard of comparison should be. "We need to figure out what's reasonable," he says, "and it should probably be on a cost-shared basis with universities."

* Web Guide to Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers ( national-academies.org/postdocs), 2000.

Jeffrey Mervis is a senior correspondent for Science magazine.