Carpe Fiscus! The time is ripe to stimulate the "pathway to independence" for early career researchers.
In August 2017, faced with the increasing probability of drastic budget cuts under the Trump administration, the NSF Directorate of Biological Sciences announced it would no longer be funding its long-praised Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants (DDIGs). This decision marked a turning point in funding opportunities for graduate students, who are particularly vulnerable to a lack of grant options. As a graduate student at the time, I wrote about the decision and its ramifications for myself and my peers, citing the NSF's choice to slash the program as a brand of "trickle-down" academics. I noted that the decision to cut DDIGs was worrisome for early-career researchers, heralding a further consolidation of academic power at the very top levels of the hierarchy and diminishing agency for already-vulnerable trainees.
Just under four years later, the world and I have both moved on – I passed my dissertation defense and began a new chapter in my academic training. The US handed the reins of power over to a markedly different administration, one constantly challenged by the lingering watermarks of its inherently anti-science predecessors. With this country-wide transition and the eyes of the world increasingly on academic research during a global pandemic, we sit at the cusp of an incredible opportunity to push funding opportunities for early-career researchers further than ever before.
Funding for Early Career Researchers
Most graduate students in STEM are funded through a combination of research and teaching assistantships, the money for which comes from grant and institutional funding, respectively. Grant funds are often awarded directly to the student's principal investigator or PI — the person directly responsible for mentoring and supervising graduate students. Teaching assistantships are often seen as less desirable by the students and their PIs, as teaching takes time away from research. Therefore, research assistantships are prized but depend entirely on the PI for funding and tend to be fairly restricted in subject matter. The PI faces pressure to publish and present on the experiments laid out in the original proposal as this evidence of success is instrumental in future funding decisions; there is usually little room for creativity or independence from the grad student.
Funding opportunities for postdoctoral fellows are often similarly awarded to the PI rather than the fellows themselves, with fairly rare exceptions. The NSF has a single program aimed solely at biology postdoctoral fellows called the postdoctoral research fellowship in biology (or the PRFB), while the NIH, the other major funder of foundational research in the US, has several opportunities geared directly at postdocs, including their F32, K25, and K99/R00 awards. Competition for these awards is fierce. It is much more common for postdocs to be funded as a component of grants awarded to established PIs, leaving little opportunity for postdocs to control the direction of their research. Instead, they remain bound to research that can directly tie into the goals of the grant they are funded under – goals which they may have had no hand in setting.
Rightly or wrongly (and it would be the topic of a whole other post to unpack whether it's right or wrong), we predominantly train our graduate students and postdocs to be future PIs. PIs must be able to independently find funding opportunities, generate innovative research proposals, and follow through on those proposals' aims. These steps all involve thinking creatively, responding to unpredictable events, and adjusting accordingly. While funding decisions are based strongly on publication record, they also depend heavily on a proven track record of securing independent funding. Depriving our early-career trainees of opportunities to establish a funding track record makes their professional and academic journeys much harder. It takes away their agency, leaving them more reliant on their PI.
Hopefully, if you've read this far and are still invested in reading further, I've convinced you that funding opportunities for early-career researchers should be expanded. What can we all do to make sure that this expansion happens? Well, the answer will likely depend on who you are and your specific role within publicly-funded research.
For fellow academics, especially those further along in their careers: