Editors Note: In this opinion piece, Robert Bartolo * argues that improving the employment conditions of postdoctoral researchers requires more than institution-level action. Bartolo also argues that postdocs, and those working with them, have an important role in establishing national priorities for research and development (R&D). The Postdoc Network will explore this question from different points of view in the coming weeks.

Washington D.C. is a town famous for lobbyists, pushing every cause from the National Rifle Association to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. In the last 10 years, scientists and universities have jumped into the lobbying arena full force.

Spending millions of dollars and deploying dozens of lobbyists, they advocate for everything from doubling the budgets of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to curtailing U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations on the care of rats and birds used for scientific research. David Malakoff details the sheer scope of the science lobby in a recent article in Science (4 May 2001, p. 830).

The science lobby has captured the attention of the U.S. Congress by selling the strong link between Federal R&D support and the expansion of our nation's high-tech industries and economy. Major universities have prospered under this system; for example, the University of Michigan currently supports 5000 researchers and brings in $545 million a year in research grants. The science lobby is currently seeking to double the budget of the NIH by FY 2003 relative to FY 1998, and to double the NSF budget by FY 2006 relative to FY 2000. Many science lobbyists admit they will have to broaden their support base if they are to maintain such large budget increases during times of tax cuts and falling tax revenues. One lobbyist quoted by Malakoff suggests that the community "probably hasn't done a good enough job of using young scientists as our emissaries."

One might think that young scientists (i.e., graduate students and postdocs) would stand to benefit from the successes of the science lobby. Yet, it appears that little of this increased funding has trickled down to the graduate students and postdocs who do most of the R&D in the United States. Universities and research centers have used these funding increases to boost the number of graduate students and postdocs, rather than to improve the working conditions for those already in the system.

According to a 1998 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers, there are some 52,000 postdocs in the U.S., double the number from 10 years earlier. Many of them are in a holding pattern, looking for scarce "real jobs" as either assistant professors or staff research scientists in government, industry, or privately funded research foundations. Most of those jobs require postdoctoral experience; successful candidates have often completed two postdocs by the time they achieve authentic employment. Increased federal R&D funding to universities has, for the most part, just perpetuated this flawed system. Those young scientists who secure academic and research appointments must now garner the research grants necessary to hire their own graduate students and postdocs.

In response to persistently poor compensation and benefits, graduate student and postdoc associations are sprouting across the nation to lobby for better pay and benefits. A few graduate-student associations have already unionized, and several postdoc associations are currently discussing the issue.

It would appear that the U.S. science-policy establishment--funding agencies, universities, and the science lobby--has not viewed creating better working conditions for this group as a priority. The NAS report seems to have caught the attention of some young scientists and academics, but real improvements in working conditions will occur only if postdocs become involved in the political process. Young scientists need to overcome their own apathy and encourage their colleagues to become more active in lobbying for change. In addition to organizing at the institutional level, it may be time for them to lobby at the federal level for improved working conditions.

Network Nugget

Recently, the author has used the Postdoc Network listserv to initiate a congressional letter-writing campaign that urges Congress to support increased postdoc minimum salary levels for both NSF- and NIH-supported research. Click here to go to the archives.

The Postdoc Network listserv, sponsored by Science's Next Wave, holds the promise of becoming an electronic forum for a grassroots movement to lobby for change in this employment predicament. The 570 current subscribers of the Postdoc Network listserv have the capacity to grow into a viable political force. Drawing on the strength of these numbers, postdocs--and those who serve them--can give elected officials a richer view of the U.S. scientific enterprise, a view from "the trenches." As the Science article by David Malakoff points out, often the most influential "lobbyists" are a representative's constituents from back home--those who call in or write letters and e-mails to discuss how legislation is affecting them personally. A letter-writing campaign is just one mechanism to bring postdoc issues to the attention of the elected officials who have a critical say in science policy decisions. The Postdoc Network listserv offers a place to focus our efforts and create an agenda for action.

Possible action items for grassroots postdoc organizing at the national level might include:

  • Persuading Congress, NIH, NSF, and other funders to classify postdocs as employees instead of "nonemployees" or "trainees," in order to facilitate extension of full employee benefits.

  • Persuading Congress, NSF, NIH, and other funders to increase the minimum salaries for postdocs and work toward increasing the use of research scientist positions with complete compensation packages--as recommended in the NIH Statement in Response to the NAS Report: Addressing the Nation's Changing Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists.

  • Joining the current science lobby to put a postdoctoral presence into the effort to increase the NIH and NSF budgets. Demonstrating capacity and influence in this way will build alliances that can be useful for future efforts.

  • Getting involved in professional science or engineering societies. Many of them sponsor "congressional visit days" where participants meet with a member of Congress, or more commonly a staff member, to discuss the importance of science funding. For example, the Joint Steering Committee for Public Policy (JSCPP), a coalition of three basic biomedical research societies, organizes a "Graduate Student/Postdoctoral Fellow Capitol Hill Day." Postdocs could act to influence professional groups, such as the JSCPP, to pursue our issues, too.

  • Joining forces with groups such as the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students (NAGPS) on issues of common concern. NAGPS has a part-time legislative director who works to both inform political leaders of grad student needs and to keep graduate student organizations informed of critical events and pending legislation of interest. NAGPS also organizes congressional-visit days, offering face-to-face contact with key congressional leaders.

    If we work as a large cohesive group, change is within our grasp.
    *Robert Bartolo, PhD, is a physicist working at a lab in the Washington, DC area. You can contact Bob atrobert.bartolo@verizon.net.