A recap of the RBR staff scientist session at the ASCB|EMBO meeting

At the recent American Society for Cell Biology meeting in Washington D.C., Rescuing Biomedical Research sponsored a session called “Barriers to expanding the ranks of staff scientists in biomedical research.” The session was meant to address some of the sticking points to hiring and retaining more lab and core-based staff scientists in academic institutions.

On the panel of experts was Laura Contreras-Ruiz, staff scientist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Travis Berggren, Executive Director of Research Operations at the Salk Institute, Stacey Gabriel, Institute Scientist and Senior Director of the Genomics Platform at the Broad Institute and Dinah Singer, Senior Investigator and Deputy Director for Scientific Strategy and Development at the NCI. The panel was moderated by Story Landis, RBR member and former director of NINDS.

The panel covered several themes.

Nomenclature: The session started with a clear definition of staff scientists: Ph.D.s working in labs or core facilities and not in training positions. However, several panelists felt “staff scientist” was too often used as a pejorative and suggested we find another term. For the session, the group agreed on the NCI designation of “research specialist.”

Funding: Research specialists are typically better paid than trainees with more extensive benefits. This makes them more expensive to a lab than other employees or trainees, and this is a major stumbling block to increasing the numbers of staff scientists. Singer spoke at length about the NCI’s Research Specialist Award (R50) program that supports the salaries of core and lab-based research specialists. Importantly, the R50 is not meant to support an intermediate step between a postdoc and faculty position. While the NCI is the only NIH institute to offer the R50 award, there are positive signs that, should the program perform well in a five-year review, other institutes may also fund similar awards.

Career paths: The path into, through and out of research specialist positions is incredibly varied. Finding research specialist positions is difficult because many these positions are not regularly advertised and it is not clear when such positions will open up. This experience was exemplified by the experiences of the panel members: Contreras-Ruiz originally applied for a lab tech position that was subsequently rewritten for a research specialist, Berggren became a research specialist when he launched a core facility and Gabriel transitioned to a research specialist position shortly after graduate school.

Success in research specialist positions is not always easy to determine. A typical metric of research success, publishing papers, works for some research specialists but others may not have opportunities to publish. Furthermore, core-based and lab-based research specialists will have different measures of what a successful career looks like.

Finally, the careers of research specialists can take many directions. Contreras-Ruiz voiced her plans to remain a research specialist in academia or industry. Some ascend a ladder to administering core facilities, as Gabriel and Berggren have. Berggren shared that several of his core directors left the Salk for faculty positions elsewhere, even though attaining a faculty position was not the original intention of these core directors.

There are many critical issues to address when it comes to expanding the number of research specialists in biomedical research. RBR intends to follow up on this discussion with further efforts to better define research specialists and establish a clear career path for these critical members of the research community.