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© AAI Newsletter, March/April 2001

Jonathan Yewdell, M.D., Ph.D.

You're putting your 9-year old to bed, and the conversation turns to their future. The kid (having been raised on Rumphian-principles1) says, "I want a job that will cure Gradma and other people and make the world a better place". Good answer, but the kid continues, "I'm gonna get married and have a boy and girl and live in the big house at the end of the block". Uh oh, that's trouble. The other little secret of immunologists2 is that becoming a biomedical scientists means that their parents will be supporting them for a long, long time to come, and that moving down the block isn't really in the cards.

Consider the typical future of students contemplating a research career. Biomedical scientists can spend 6 to 7 years in a Ph.D. program and 5 years as a post-doc. As Ph.D. students they earn less than $20,000 a year. As a post-doc on a training grant, they'll be paid a starting salary of $28,260 and won't receive pension benefits or even Social Security or its disability (SSI) benefits. When they finally do finish their post-doc years, at an average age of 37, they will get their first "real" job. This will provide them their first opportunity to save for retirement, not to mention their children's college education (which may be only a few years away) and the purchase of a home. As for the other things that highly educated and skilled professionals in the world's richest countries typically provide for their families, well, basically fugetaboudit3.

Compare this compensation to that offered by other careers available to the bright and industrious. Even post-docs in other fields can make a lot more; for example, physics post-docs at Los Alamos National Laboratory start at $47,000. If they gain entry to one of the top 20 law schools they'll make an average of $88K right out of the gate (OK, but they have to be a lawyer). How about a master's degree? For an MBA, it's $61K. For computer sciences and electrical engineering, it's $51K. Even college graduates earn more, with starting salaries of $46K for engineers and $30 for B.A. graduates.

And how to explain to our future immunologist post-doc that despite hard, hard work (50-70 hours per week), years of being underpaid, and no certain pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (a tenure track job4) - technicians in their same laboratory (who lack advanced degrees and usually work many fewer hours) are paid considerably more and receive institutional employment benefits like health insurance, pensions, and Social Security.

So you tell your kid that while you love your job and wouldn't change your life's work for anything, the world has changed. The profession has changed. This is not a career for anyone you care about. OR...

You help AAI fix this outrage and bring fair compensation and benefits to the people who make most of the discoveries in your lab and will be the scientific leaders of tomorrow.

As part of AAI's effort to right this terrible wrong, AAI successfully urged FASEB, during its annual Federal Funding Conference last December, to adopt a provision regarding post-doctoral compensation as one of its top recommendations in its Conference document. The provision that has been subsequently adopted by FASEB follows:

FASEB recognizes that the low level of compensation for post-doctoral fellows has created a crisis in biomedical research. FASEB recommends a substantial increase in the base salaries of NRSA-funded post-doctoral fellows and benefits comparable to those received by permanent employees

This consensus document, including the above provision, will be used by FASEB and its member societies to promote a federal funding agenda agreed upon by member societies. While the document contains many provisions of importance to AAI and biomedical scientists in general, no single provision is more important to the future of our profession than ensuring a continued flow of the best and brightest science students into our laboratories and pursuing the profession. In fact, the sheer number of American students (much less the best and brightest) pursuing post-doctoral programs in the biomedical sciences continues to stagnate at levels reached 30(!) years ago despite the enormous increase in the biomedical enterprise, while the percentage of foreign nationals working as post-doctoral fellows in the U.S. has increased to 50% with no ceiling in sight.

While numerous factors affect students' career choices, there is no question that inadequate and unlivable compensation of post-docs is a major cause of our failure to recruit sufficient numbers of the best and brightest. The shabby treatment of our own is simply unethical, as it directly impact the lives of young biomedical scientists, and even their health, given the necessity to delay childbirth. AAI's Committee on Public Affairs has made this issue one of its top agenda items for 2001 and has initiated advocacy efforts. We are encouraged by reports that the National Science Foundation has included in its FY2002 budget request a 45% increase in salaries for its post-docs, for a first year post-doc salary of $40,000. The time has come for a similar change for biomedical scientists.

If you are moved to become involved in AAI's advocacy effors, please contact Lauen Gross, AAI's Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs, at lgross@aai.faseb.org.

1Miss Rumphius, a creation of children's book author Barbara Cooney, plants flowers (and ideas in children) to make the world a better place.
2The first "little dirty secret" is the need for adjuvants to elicit immune response to non-infectious agents.
3Rough translation from New York dialect is "forget about it".
4I'll admit to some hyperbole here, as few would consider the opportunity to work even harder under even more stressful conditions the proverbial pot of gold.

2001m. liepos 12d.

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