March 12, 2010

FASEB Advocates for Higher Stipends for Postdoctoral Researchers

In a recent letter to NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, FASEB urged the agency to incorporate into its budget requests an increase in stipends for postdoctoral researchers supported by Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSAs). The NRSA is a $782 million program that supports over 16,000 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in the biomedical and behavioral sciences on individual fellowships and institutional training grants. In 2001, responding to a National Academy of Sciences report stating that NRSA stipend levels are “unduly low,” NIH recommended a $45,000 stipend for postdocs and noted that it would incorporate 10 to 12 percent annual increases in its budget requests until that level is reached. These increases were realized in 2002 and 2003—the tail end of the doubling of the NIH budget—but the agency was not able to meet its target in the following years as funding for science declined. Stipends for entry-level postdocs currently stand at $37,740.

In the letter, FASEB expressed appreciation for recent stipend increases, as well as for President Obama’s request for an additional six percent increase in 2011. However, FASEB cited concern that even with that proposed boost, compensation for postdocs is not commensurate with their education, experience, and contribution to the biomedical research enterprise. To that end, FASEB recommended raising stipends for entry level NRSA postdocs to $43,000—the approximate level at which stipends would be set had they been adjusted annually for cost of living since the program’s inception—and providing annual cost of living increases thereafter. FASEB will continue to advocate for increased funding for NIH so that it has the resources to meet this goal.

Noting that many institutions benchmark pay for all of their postdocs to the NRSA level, FASEB also recommended that NIH develop a mechanism by which investigators could request supplemental funding to increase compensation for postdocs supported on research grants if NRSA stipends are raised beyond the cost of living. This would be a step toward ensuring that postdocs supported on research grants receive the recommended level of compensation, encourage parity in postdoctoral salaries within institutions, and allow investigators to absorb additional training costs without drawing on funds budgeted for research equipment and supplies. To read FASEB’s letter, click here.

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Secretary Chu Testifies in Support of FY 2011 Budget Request

Last week, Energy Secretary Steven Chu testified before the House Science and Technology Committee and the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee about the Department of Energy’s (DoE) budget request for fiscal year 2011. The written testimony was the same at the two hearings and emphasized clean energy alternatives. Mention was also made of workforce education and the DoE’s approaches to innovation. During the question period at the House hearing, Representative David Wu (D-OR) asked for more information about the DoE’s “innovation hubs.” Secretary Chu replied that they are an attempt to recreate the environment that led to transformative research in times of national need. The ultimate goal is to drive discoveries to the point where industry would be interested in moving them into the marketplace.

On the Senate side, it was of interest that Senator Bob Bennett (R-UT) expressed a concern about unspent balances in the DoE budget, including funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). There was also some questioning (by Republicans and Democrats alike) about whether the administration's decisions regarding such programs were truly made based on scientific evidence. Overall, however, both the House and Senate committee hearings focused primarily on programs that fund clean energy alternatives.

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Funding for NSF Highlighted at House Science Committee Hearing

On March 10th, the House Science and Technology Committee’s Research and Science Education Subcommittee heard testimony from Dr. Arden Bement (Director, National Science Foundation) and Dr. Steven Beering (Chair, National Science Board) on the NSF fiscal year 2011 budget request. Also discussed was the status of the NSF programs authorized (and due to be reauthorized) under the American COMPETES Act. In his opening statement, Chairman Dan Lipinski (D-IL) stated he was pleased with the President’s budget overall, but concerned that the request for NSF’s Education Directorate “barely keeps pace with inflation.” Chairman Lipinski also mentioned a topic that continues to be of particular interest to him, the maintenance and modernization of academic research infrastructure.

Dr. Bement’s testimony highlighted NSF’s mission “to advance the frontiers of knowledge” through high-risk, high-reward research. The President’s budget requests $7.42 billion (an eight percent increase) to keep the agency in line with the administration’s goal of doubling the NSF budget. Bement also went into detail about NSF’s role in the national innovation strategy, learning and workforce development, and broadening participation of ethnic minorities. In his testimony, Dr. Beering explained the NSB’s request of $4.84 million and reviewed the Board’s priorities. He also discussed the establishment of the Subcommittee on Facilities, which will conduct an annual review of NSF-funded facilities. The overall message of both statements was that investment in research and development at NSF is necessary for American to maintain economic security and its position as a world leader in science and technology.

Most of the Representatives in attendance at the hearing made a point of thanking Dr. Bement and Dr. Beering for their service to the government. Both are retiring from their current positions in the next few months. A number of the questions following the formal testimony focused on various science, technology, education and math (STEM) education initiatives. Additionally, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) inquired about the mechanisms in place at NSF to measure the effectiveness of its individual programs. Dr. Bement outlined the existing oversight structure and mentioned that NSF is in the process of establishing an Office of Program Planning and Evaluation.

Representative Lipinski asked if a specific percentage of the NSF budget was set aside for high-risk, high-reward research. Dr. Bement replied that all NSF-funded projects are potentially transformative, but that in fiscal year 2010, each division set aside $2 million specifically for transformative research (for a total of $92 million across the agency). He also stated that NSF hopes its new criteria will encourage reviewers to reject proposals from investigators who do not include sufficient risk in their research. Lipinski asked a follow-up question about the use of innovation prizes, and Dr. Bement mentioned that NSF is assessing what types of innovation rewards might be appropriate, particularly those that recognize the importance of broadening participation in science. In response to Representative Lipinski’s concerns about infrastructure, Bement indicated that he understood the problem but was more focused on unmet needs that were closer to the mission of NSF. From his point of view, universities should be called on to provide more resources for infrastructure. For more information, see the press release on the committee’s website or view the webcast.

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Senate Science Committee Focuses on Advancing American Innovation

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee recently heard testimony on the topic of “Advancing American Innovation and Competitiveness. Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Ranking Member Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) both presented opening statements that focused on maintaining American’s position as a world leader in science and technology through science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. The panel of witnesses included, Dr. John Holdren (Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy, OSTP), Dr. Arden Bement (Director, National Science Foundation), Dr. Patrick Gallagher (Director, National Institute of Standards and Technology), and Dr. Robert Braun (Chief Technologist, National Aeronautics and Space Administration). The witnesses were asked to submit their testimony in writing, due to time constraints.

Similar to the opening statements, much of the questioning by the committee members focused on STEM education, as well as how to foster international collaborations. Further, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) expressed disappointment that the U.S. innovation and competition strategy has been “nonexistent for more than ten years.” Dr. Holdren replied that the President’s national innovation strategy provides the essential framework, though more work is needed. As a follow-up, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) inquired about the challenges in transitioning discoveries to the market place. Dr. Gallagher explained that technology transfer is a “fragile process” that requires diverse approaches. He emphasized the role of state and local governments in this process.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) asked about the paradox of emphasizing high-risk, high-reward research when investigators are reluctant to submit proposals that are “too risky.” Dr. Bement responded that NSF is evaluating its current merit review and solicitation systems, as well as developing new approaches to the problem. He also mentioned novel methodologies for identifying this research and fostering innovation. Senator John Thune (R-SD) asked about ensuring a fair and transparent review process, especially in light of the increased proposal volume. Dr. Bement explained that NSF works hard to maintain the high standards of their review systems, but that a staffing increase is necessary to handle the volume.

Additionally, there was some discussion of scientific integrity within the executive branch. In his opening remarks, Dr. Holdren mentioned a recent memorandum from the President, outlining key principles for scientific integrity and directing OSTP to develop recommendations for Presidential action. Later, Senator Nelson asked if there had been any evidence of suppression or distortion of scientific research within the administration. Holdren stated that OSTP is conducting investigations in a handful of unconnected cases, but that no wrongdoing has been detected.

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FASEB’s Washington Update is brought to you bi-monthly by the FASEB Office of Public Affairs. We welcome your questions and comments – please contact Jennifer Zeitzer at jzeitzer@faseb.org or 301-634-7650. For more information about how to get involved in research advocacy, visit: http://capwiz.com/faseb/home/

 

   
   
 

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