100% EFFORT? 100% CONFUSION
POST DATE August 30, 2007, 3 PM
POSTED BY Geoff Davis
Science this week has a piece entitled "POSTDOCTORAL TRAINING: NSF, NIH Emphasize the Importance of Mentoring" that talks about the mentoring plan requirement for NSF-funded postdocs in the America COMPETES act and a new statement on mentoring from NIH:
The NSF requirement looks like a step forward; the NIH provision, on the other hand, left me scratching my head. The difference, as I see it, is this: The NSF provision tells PIs that they are required to do mentoring and that they have to document their mentoring activities. The NIH tells PIs that they are allowed to do mentoring, but not too much. That right there should tell you a lot about the different cultures in and outside of the life sciences.
Some background on the NIH statement: most postdocs are funded on research grants, which means that they are essentially contract workers participating in a larger project. 100% of their funding comes from the project, so they are typically listed on grants as committed to spending 100% of their time on the project.
My understanding is that the percent effort information is included on grants for a couple of reasons: (1) it prevents PIs from taking double salaries, say, one from their university for teaching a few classes and one from the NIH for doing lab research, and (2) it prevents universities from loading additional responsibilities onto PIs that take away from their research time. Universities get audited on such things, so they take 100% effort provisions pretty seriously.
The NIH statement says that it is OK for a PI to provide some kinds of basic mentoring as part of that 100% effort as long as the "mentoring activities are not readily separable from activities related to supervising the participation of students and postdoctorates in the funded research project." So a postdoc can, say, receive feedback from her PI on her performance without having to take vacation time to listen. Thanks, NIH!
But what about "readily separable" activities?
If I'm reading correctly, a lot of basic things that postdoc offices do for career development are excluded from 100% effort: e.g. seminars on grant writing / giving better research talks / teaching / lab management / project management - in short, structured training in many of the basic skills that a postdoc might need to become an effective independent researcher is not counted as part of the job.
In short, while the NIH defines a postdoc as someone who is receiving "advanced training to enhance the professional skills and research independence needed to pursue his or her chosen career path," postdocs have to get much of that training on their own time and dime.
So what's a conscientious PI to do?
The vacation idea gives rise to another question: what does 100% effort mean for people who work far longer hours than the standard 40 hour week? If I'm working on a project in which I come into the lab 7 days a week to care for my mice / worms / slugs and I put in 50-60 hour weeks (not uncommon), am I exerting less than 100% effort if I put in a 40 hour week and take a couple of afternoons off to attend professional development classes? I have heard some PIs answer "yes" to that question at conferences - it's an interpretation that can be used to justify preventing postdocs from ever leaving the lab.
I think that without further clarification from NIH, their statement leaves things more or less as is. If you are an enlightened PI, you can get your postdocs the training they need through a few different (but awkward) workarounds. If you are less enlightened, you can use the "clarification" to keep your postdocs chained to the bench.
I think the NIH would do well to make it explicit that there is an expectation that postdocs, because they are by definition trainees, should receive some amount of training. And moreover, that it is perfectly acceptable for postdocs to receive a modest amount of training outside the lab without requiring either PIs or postdocs to go through contortions.