Earlier this year, to surprisingly little fanfare, the White House announced a change in science policy that may significantly improve the status of some postdocs. Whether any of them actually benefit will depend on the politics of universities and labs across the country.
On January 11, President Bush's science advisor John H. Marburger III, who oversees the federal scientific enterprise as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), issued a memo instructing the heads of all government research organizations to establish "appropriate policies to acknowledge more than one principal investigator (PI) when there is more than one collaborating investigator working on a Federally-funded research project," according to a White House news release.
All Major Contributors to Receive Recognition
Scientists collaborating on projects will receive "more uniform recognition" for their work, the release continues. The memo does not mention postdocs, but it opens the way for those making major scientific contributions to projects to receive the official acknowledgement as full-fledged independent researchers that has traditionally been the exclusive prerogative of faculty members.
Funding agencies will "develop policies that will recognize or acknowledge when multiple investigators are really acting as collaborators, senior investigators, on a project," Geoffrey Grant, staff director of the Research Business Models Subcommittee of OSTP?s Committee on Science, told Next Wave. "That won't be all the time, of course. When it's the case, we want to have them acknowledged." The date that the new policy goes into effect will "vary by agency," he added. "We would hope to move very, very soon."
Nothing in federal regulations has prohibited postdocs from becoming PIs. For administrative rather than scientific reasons, however, universities have generally denied the institutional backing needed to apply for grants to anyone lacking a faculty slot. "Any qualified scientist," faculty member or not, who works "in a research institution that can furnish the needed support" is eligible to submit a grant application, according to an NIH fact sheet  for potential applicants.
Once a proposal is funded, however, the "institution's business office"--not the PI-- "is legally responsible for the performance and financial aspects of the grant and signs all the paperwork." The PI, who "direct[s] the research," is technically an agent of the university. In the words of the fact sheet, NIH requires a PI to have "academic credentials and experience appropriate to the proposal." The institution "must have equipment, personnel, and space and give [PIs] enough time to accomplish the project." Finally, a PI must "remain at the institution receiving the award long enough to finish [the] project."
And there, many observers believe, has been the rub. Universities have traditionally regarded PI status as a commitment to provide continued employment while they have regarded postdocs as temporary trainees unworthy of such investment. One potential of the new arrangement, as some informed observers suggest, is that only one?not all--of the PIs on a project will need the expensive resources and long-term stability that universities have traditionally provided to faculty members competing for grants. If highly qualified postdocs functioning as additional PIs can strengthen faculty members? research proposals without requiring an extra investment from the university, university officials may be willing to rethink the old restrictions in the interest of winning new grants and allowing productive postdocs the full recognition that their work truly deserves.
According to the website of the NIH Roadmap, an initiative that strongly encourages collaborative research, NIH plans to make grants that give "principal investigator status to not one investigator, as is now the norm, but to all key members of the research team." Whether postdocs will attain that coveted designation is not yet clear, but it is now certainly "at least feasible," Grant says. "It would at least be allowable as far as the [funding] agency is concerned."
A Sense of Fairness
Collaborating PIs would have to divide the job of providing what NIH terms "the scientific and technical direction of a project, the day-to-day management of the project or program." But in many labs, postdocs already provide much of the daily leadership that makes many projects run. "People will work that out with their institution," says Grant, adding that various arrangements could satisfy the federal funding agencies as long as researchers supply "a single contact person for each project. However the institution arrives at that, that's OK." And what would motivate faculty PIs to share the glory with postdocs? "A sense of fairness," suggests one expert on academic life. "It becomes kind of akin to an authorship practice. You wouldn't think of not listing that postdoc as an author if the postdoc made substantive contributions to the project and the paper."
The chance to attain full scientific recognition without having to land a faculty job first could shrink the chasm now separating postdocs from researchers on the tenure track. Scientists who make lesser but still significant contributions to projects, including postdocs and grad students, are also in line for greater recognition as federal funding agencies switch from paper to electronic grant applications in the next few years. This technology will permit online searches for names of all "key personnel" listed in grants. Junior researchers can use it to document their accomplishments without depending on the good will of their supervisors. At present, only PIs appear in publicly available grants databases such as that maintained by NIH.
Exactly how these opportunities for enhanced visibility play out will only emerge over time. PI status and the expanded online listings of contributors' names could, as some believe, increase the stature and independence of many young scientists. Or, as others fear, being named a secondary PI could become merely another mandatory hurdle in the frustrating race for the tiny number of available faculty openings. And whether postdocs at a given university can even apply to be PIs will depend on their ability to convince administrators and faculty members to change longstanding practices. From a university's standpoint, allowing postdoc PIs could become a bargaining chip in the competition to attract the most desirable postdocs. On the other hand, wider access to the PI designation might simply devalue a once-distinguished credential.
One thing is already clear, however. A postdoc who is truly "a substantial collaborator" deserves full scientific recognition, Grant says. "At least the [funding] agencies aren't doing anything to inhibit that."