Drew MacKellar: Harvard

Topic: Staff Scientists
by Drew MacKellar
Harvard Medical School

Many of the people I have spoken to about the structure of the US Biomedical research structure have emphasized a role for staff scientists (and particularly in increasing their number as a portion of the workforce) in improving outcomes, and I agree with that assessment. Labs derive creativity and enthusiasm from temporary staff (grad students and postdocs), but most have little or no representation from permanent staff aside from the PI. Staff scientists can offer guidance and improved quality in the design of experiments and analysis of data conducted by trainees. They are qualified to provide summaries and statements in support of grant proposals and other documents, helping to ease the administrative burden on PIs. And their seniority and experience would help them avoid waste or inefficiency in carrying out experiments, which are unavoidable in trainees since, as the name implies, the latter are still learning and therefore occasionally making costly mistakes.

The cheapness and ubiquity of postdoctoral fellow positions in science has made the postdoc position an oversized reservoir of applicants for a relatively small pool of independent academic professorships. The stress upon individual scientists might be eased if, instead of a sudden shock of attrition in advancement between the postdoc and PI roles, there was a gradual reduction in the expectation of openings at each successive level in research training. Creating a larger role for staff scientists in the future would change PIs’ assumptions about the cost of operating a lab efficiently. The result could decrease the pool of funds available for hiring temporary labor, simultaneously discouraging overpopulation of postdocs, and rewarding those who choose to remain at the bench beyond their training with a position that offers greater dignity and financial stability. The expanded use of permanent staff may need to be encouraged at first by funding agencies such as the NIH, but ultimately PIs may find their interests better served by a greater variety of levels of seniority among the members of their labs, too.