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Imagine two postdoctoral researchers in an academic lab. Both have similar duties, such as conducting experiments, mentoring junior lab members, analyzing data and publishing and presenting their work.

However, if one of them were awarded a prestigious training fellowship from the National Institutes of Health, that same postdoc may lose their employment status with their institution, causing a loss of critical employee benefits in their overall compensation package.

With 230 research institutions and more than 20,000 postdocs as members, the National Postdoctoral Association has seen postdocs struggle with fundamental life choices, such as whether to have a family and how to provide them with insurance, that should not be impacted by their funding source. Yet some postdocs are turning down federal training fellowships or, worse, are funded by federal training grants but lack access to disability or retirement benefits their peers receive and fear the consequences of leaving the grant.

The current policies around training grants create a disincentive for these important federal funding opportunities and an unequal work environment that the NPA wishes to see changed.

Not a New Problem

Reports of this issue go back decades: see, for example, this 2002 article in Science, which asked, “What will it take to create a single employment class (status) for all postdocs, regardless of funding source?”

The loss of the employer-employee relationship upon receipt of an NIH training fellowship is a frequent occurrence at many academic institutions. Due in large part to the lack of clear language and guidance in the NIH Grants Policy Statement and fear of violating federal law or regulations, university lawyers often interpret NIH training fellowships as incompatible with institutional employment. Although the NIH recently issued some encouraging clarifications around stipends, it does not directly address this persistent issue.

A working group at the NIH investigated the issue and released a report in 2012 recommending that all NIH-supported postdocs should have “benefits that are comparable to other employees at the institution,” including “paid time off, health insurance, retirement plans, maternity leave, etc.” This was followed by an NIH survey, which concluded that while “many institutions have identified ways to offer a standard benefit package to all of their postdocs, standardization appears to be difficult for other institutions, especially those with large numbers of postdocs.”

Aside from a welcome childcare benefit created last year, a decade since the NIH task force issued its report, to the best of the NPA’s knowledge, there have been no other significant changes to federal policies to ensure postdocs on NIH training fellowships have equal access to employee-level benefits.

Navigating the Current Policy and Legal Framework

One of the underlying policies preventing benefit equity is the NIH Grants Policy sec.11.3.8, which currently states that trainees paid from institutional research training grants, such as T-32 and F-32 awards, must be paid via stipend, not salary, and the stipend must only be used to defray the cost of living expenses. The policy also precludes institutions from using grant funds to pay for benefits other than health insurance.

Universities and institutions seeking to give fellows on training grants employee-level benefits face two problems: (1) they are unsure whether these fellows can legally be classified as employees, and (2) since benefits like life insurance and unemployment insurance are not allowable expenses for NIH grants, they often face a budget shortfall in providing those benefits themselves.

This has shifted the burden of determining employment status of postdocs with different grant types onto a diverse set of academic research institutions across the nation. Rather than operating off clear federal guidance, these universities are forced to fall back on legacy systems of personnel classification and the judgments of internal legal teams.

Some institutions have persevered and found creative ways to extend comparable employment benefits to federally funded postdocs. For example, the University of Chicago provides postdocs who are not classified as employees a supplement to help cover employee-type benefits like health, dental and life insurance and disability coverage, as well as a contribution to a retirement account and taxes. But not every institution has the funding or administrative structures in place to initiate such changes, especially for postdocs, positions that have historically been underrecognized in academia and broader scientific culture.

Recently, some federal fellowship programs have begun taking the initiative to add policy language to ensure equitable benefits are available to their awardees. The National Science Foundation’s Career-Life Balance initiative features a fellowship allowance that can be spent on a number of fringe benefits. NSF also includes in at least one of its grant provisions the mandate that postdoctoral research fellows “receive salary and benefits as an organizational employee.”

Additionally, the NASA Hubble Fellowship now requires host institutions to offer their fellows the opportunity to be employees and provide employee-level benefits. Welcome as this is, however, this does not seem to address the issue of institutional difficulty in funding employee-level benefits for federally funded postdocs.

Potential Paths Toward Equity

The NPA suggests three nonexclusive paths forward for federal agencies, Congress and institutions hosting postdocs to consider. Each has pros and cons that must be further weighed individually or in combination with one another to ultimately provide postdocs with equitable access to benefits regardless of their funding source.

  1. The NIH could alleviate uncertainty by clarifying in writing that the mere act of a postdoc accepting an NIH training fellowship does not prevent a host institution from employing such a postdoc. Clearer policy language around employment status paves the way for institutions with the desire and resources to provide employee-level benefits the green light to do so. This wouldn’t resolve the issue of how to pay for these benefits at lower-resourced institutions, but it would be a positive step forward for the postdoctoral community.
  2. To combat inequities across the board, Congress could increase federal appropriations to support supplemental funds for individual awards to offset the institutional costs of providing equitable benefits. Given the size and importance of federal expenditures in science and research, this additional boost in training grant levels would be a drop in the bucket but would smartly target an underappreciated population that is both vulnerable and essential. Ideally, such an important investment in scientists would not come at the expense of their research projects but would instead constitute a modest additional public commitment to building equity for the nation’s early career researchers.
  3. Alternatively, or in addition, the NIH could provide institutions with more flexibility by establishing a defined set of standard postdoc employment benefits as allowable costs for training-related expenses using research grant funds, such as R-01 grants held by the postdoc’s research adviser. Although this approach could impact the dollars available for research projects, investment in the individual scientist is essential to an equitable environment and success in the laboratory.

Across dozens of disciplines, postdocs are critical to the success of scientific research and the advancement of American innovation. At a time when many institutions are struggling to recruit postdocs, action must be taken to ensure postdocs receive equitable benefits that not only meet their basic needs but also align with their expertise and essential work at academic and research institutions. The recent announcement of a new NIH working group charged with examining NIH-supported postdoctoral training offers promise as one key step along this path to equality.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In a written statement, the NIH Office of Extramural Research said that stipends for postdoctoral fellows or trainees receiving Kirschstein National Research Service Awards “may be supplemented by an institution from nonfederal funds provided this supplementation is without any additional obligation for the fellow or trainee.” The office said the “challenges facing postdoctoral researchers in biomedical science are real and varied … which is one of the reasons a new ad hoc group of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director (ACD) was charged with re-envisioning NIH-supported postdoctoral training.”

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