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A broken system

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Playbook discusses financial pressures on early career researchers with AAAS chief Sudip Parikh

For those at the start of a career in research, financial pressure is nothing new.

But a recent spike in inflation and other repercussions of the financial shock sparked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine have come on the back of the Covid-19 pandemic. Those at the bottom have suffered the most.

“For graduate students, postdocs, folks early in their scientific career, it’s been challenging for a long time,” says Sudip Parikh, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “It’s becoming more challenging.”

Part of the problem, Parikh says, is that the salaries for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers have not kept pace with inflation for a long time. Life at the bottom of the laboratory career pyramid has got tougher and tougher as a result.

“No one is saying that graduate students should be paid lavishly, but they shouldn’t be paid so little that they can qualify for social services, and that is happening in some places around the country.”

Parikh wants those with the power to make changes to step up.

“You have to look at these things and face the problem before you can solve it, and we’ve really avoided talking about the problem,” Parikh says.

‘Nothing comes without a price’

Those with the most power to make change are at the top of the major federal funders: the people running the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.

“They have the authority they need to make a difference, but nothing comes without a price,” Parikh says.

Significantly increasing postdoc salaries would leave principal investigators with less money to spend elsewhere, unless grants were themselves increased. For Parikh, this is an issue that the research community can’t ignore any longer. A difficult decision has to be made.

“We’ve known this in every other industry: that if salaries go up then your costs go up.”

Parikh lays out the two options. Either Congress gives more funding—something that looks increasingly unlikely given political wrangling over the US debt ceiling—or funders give out a smaller number of bigger grants.

“Now, that has huge implications and we have got to face it in order to actively make decisions,” Parikh says. “If you avoid the problem then you end up in this place where the least powerful individuals are the ones that face the consequences.”

Workforce attrition

With some early career researchers facing impossible choices, they have begun to organise.

“What you’re seeing today is a move towards unionisation, towards protest, towards strikes on some campuses,” Parikh says. “This is very much in response to the fact that these issues around the scientific workforce haven’t changed.”

Pay is not the only issue. Most early career researchers don’t enjoy the same benefits as their more senior colleagues, such as childcare and parental leave allowances. The absence of these piled even more pressure on during the pandemic.

This left many researchers at the start of their career with little option but to abandon their chosen professions as Covid raged.

“If the sciences don’t look like a good career path, people will vote with their feet—and they have,” Parikh says.

This may not be something that reverses as memories of the pandemic fade. Despite growing numbers of US graduate students studying science, engineering and health, the number of postdoctoral trainees has been falling in recent years. Covid-19 heightened existing displeasure among this group, but it did not cause it.

The downward trend creates more problems. It “leads to these problems in terms of the demographics of the scientific workforce not looking like our nation”, Parikh warns.

Having himself moved between science, policy and industry, Parikh recognises the importance of those with scientific training moving into other fields. “But we also need scientists in research, we need scientists in academia, we need scientists in industry,” he says.

Systemic challenges

Parikh points to other challenges that can turn people away from careers in research. “One is the administrative burden that is on scientists today that was not on them 20 years ago,” he suggests—necessary but time-consuming things like conflicts of interest or transparency over any foreign ties.

“That administrative burden is gigantic, and it really hurts early career scientists because they don’t have assistants to help them fill this stuff out.”

Some of these challenges come from changes in the policy environment, such as increased scrutiny of foreign ties. Another example with unintended consequences for early career researchers is the move towards open-access publishing.

“I’ve been very outspoken…about the damage that the gold open-access model does to early career scientists,” Parikh says, referring to the system where authors pay fees to journals to make papers free to read. This can come with prohibitively high costs at the most prestigious journals, preventing those with less financial freedom from publishing their work openly in these outlets.

As executive publisher of the Science group of journals, Parikh says his association is “working very hard to go with a green open-access route”. This allows researchers to deposit a paper themselves in an open-access repository but does not, at least initially, require authors to pay a fee.

And then there are challenges from research culture that can incentivise bad behaviour and exacerbate entrenched inequalities. Many cases of appalling behaviour by lab leaders have surfaced but still more are likely to lurk unreported, with all the damage that implies.

“The power of the principal investigator is extraordinary over the career of a postdoc,” Parikh says.

“If you’re working in an environment where there is sexual harassment or other types of toxicity in the workplace, if you’re working in a space where one person has complete control over your destiny, that is a very unattractive career pathway.”

Patchy progress

There are some signs of things moving in the right direction. An advisory committee to the director of the National Institutes of Health has taken input on how to improve the experience of being a postdoctoral researcher and is expected to make recommendations.

Early career researchers themselves have been successful in advocating for better conditions. Parikh says there is now a small caucus of members of Congress supportive of early career scientists.

Some institutions, such as parts of the University of California system, have already raised salaries for postdocs in response to strikes and other efforts, though Parikh warns that not all universities have coffers deep enough to take such action.

But the real power lies with funders. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute recently introduced a new salary scale for postdocs, starting at a minimum of $70,000.

Parikh is urging other funders to follow suit and “make it part of their mandate, because they have the most ability to affect the incentives in the system”.

Patchy advances could lead to inequities, he fears, with some postdocs paid far more than others, potentially even within the same lab.

“We need to make sure that funding agencies are also incentivising [university administrators] to make the environment in which graduate students and postdocs, and for that matter undergraduates, are working a good environment,” Parikh says.

“No one ever said they want it to be easy, but it can’t be this hard—or we’re going to drive people out of science.”

And finally…

The worst-kept secret in research policy has finally become official: president Joe Biden has confirmed he is nominating Monica Bertagnolli to lead the National Institutes of Health. Research groups have welcomed the move.

Bertagnolli was only made leader of the National Cancer Institute last year and has had a rollercoaster few months since. She announced last year that she had breast cancer and was being treated at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where she worked as a surgical oncologist for years before starting at the NCI.

She now faces confirmation hearings in the Senate before she takes up one of the biggest science jobs in the US.

Highlights from Research Professional News this week

Emily Twinch reports that research organisations have praised US president Joe Biden’s confirmation of his intention to nominate Monica Bertagnolli to be the next director of the National Institutes of Health.

She also brings us the news that funding to boost US research and innovation through the Chips and Science Act is falling billions of dollars short of what was expected, according to analysis by the Federation of American Scientists.

In our US news roundup, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has warned that a cut to US R&D budgets would not only mean that less research and innovation could be funded; it could also result in fewer jobs, a reduced capacity to respond to emergencies and a hit to the economy.

In the news

The New York Times reports on Ron DeSantis’s takeover of a progressive college, Nasa has picked Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander for the Artemis V mission, a cancer surgeon and patient is the president’s pick to lead the National Institutes of Health, and an opinion piece says that the most common graduation advice tends to backfire.

In The Washington Post, the chief executive of Warner Bros Discovery has been booed at Boston University over the writers’ strike, an Idaho stabbing suspect is to face charges of killing four students, an opinion piece says that student loans prove you can’t have it both ways, and another says that college athletes should be paid.

In The Wall Street Journal, the Supreme Court is to rule on student debt, and student loan borrowers may be spared the worst if the US fails to raise the debt ceiling.

Reuters reports that Blue Origin has won a Nasa contract, and SpaceX has hired a former Nasa human spaceflight chief.

The Associated Press says that the chief executive of Warner Bros Discovery has been booed at Boston University, misconceptions have blocked state dollars at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, and Nasa has picked Blue Origin to build lunar landers.

Science reports that a disgraced sexual harasser has been removed from an astronomy manuscript, and the president has nominated Monica Bertagnolli to lead the National Institutes of Health.

Nature looks at whether scientific meetings matter and whether giant surveys of scientists can fight misinformation.

The week ahead


The National Academies start a two-day meeting on building defence research capacity at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other institutions.


A National Academies panel is looking into the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Physical Measurement Laboratory.

The House Committee on Natural Resources is looking at the president’s budget request for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies.


The Nobel Prize Summit takes place in Washington DC.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce is looking at student loans.

The Playbook would not be possible without Robin Bisson, Rachel Magee, Andrew Silver, Martyn Jones, Craig Nicholson, Daniel Cressey and Sarah Richardson.

Thanks for reading. Have a great day.