Letter to NIH

Add your name to our letter here!

Amendment: We initiated this process with postdocs in mind, but quickly came to realize that graduate students face the same challenges, but with lower salaries. We therefore propose that the policies detailed below apply to graduate students in addition to postdocs.

Dear Dr. Collins and Dr. Valantine,

Postdocs are increasingly forced to choose between starting families and pursuing academic careers. From our struggles as postdoctoral parents, we have identified three key areas where regressive policies and insufficient NIH support pressure parents to leave the academic workforce prematurely: (1) lack of paid parental leave, (2) lack of support during the transition back to work, and (3) the high cost of childcare. These issues disproportionately affect women – postdoctoral women with children are almost twice as likely as men to leave academia, and three times less likely than women without children to obtain a tenure-track position.

As the primary funding agency in the United States, the NIH is uniquely positioned to promote changes to support all postdoc parents, end regressive policies that disadvantage women, and prevent talented parents from leaving academic research. Not only would this address a major source of institutional discrimination, it would directly improve the representation of women and those of lower socioeconomic status among the faculty ranks. Raising young children is extremely time- and resource-intensive, and is often incompatible with the low-paying, demanding, and transitional nature of many postdoctoral experiences. Postdocs without additional support, e.g. financial or spousal, are often not able to afford the opportunity cost to stay in relatively low-paying academic positions (see also Appendix). 

Below we have outlined the major problems facing postdoctoral parents and the concrete steps that we urge the NIH to take to address these issues. We realize that complex problems often require iteration, therefore, we request an in-person meeting with you to discuss these changes and a public timeline with progress updates.

Problem: Lack of paid parental leave.

Solution 1:

NIH should mandate that all new parents receive at least 8 weeks of paid parental leave and that birth mothers receive at least 12 weeks of paid leave, regardless of institution policies or mentor approval. This should be specified for postdocs and graduate students paid through NIH fellowships (e.g. T32 and F32) or from principal investigator grants (e.g. R01). All benefits (most notably health insurance) must stay in place during this time.

Impact: Parental leave policies are up to the discretion of the institution, consequently, over half of postdoc mothers and fathers had no access to paid parental leave, leading many to take inadequate or no leave. Countless studies have demonstrated that paid parental leave significantly increases retention and productivity of new parents as well as improves infant and maternal health outcomes.

Precedent: A growing proportion of the private sector now provide at least 12 weeks of paid parental leave due to the overwhelming evidence that this increases retention and productivity of workers. Within academia, Human Frontier Science Program (HSFP) fellowship explicitly grants 3 months of paid parental leave and monetarily extends the fellowship period.

Solution 2:

NIH should provide fellowship and grant extensions and designate additional funds equivalent to the duration of parental leave. 

Impact: Postdocs and graduate students on NIH fellowships may take paid parental leave (depending on institution policies), but their fellowship period is effectively shortened compared their peers. For trainees paid from PI grants, the burden is placed on the PIs, leading to perverse incentives. Mentors benefit from postdocs taking inadequate leave and are discouraged from hiring postdocs who may have children. Extending PI grants and trainee fellowships to account for time spent away from research will level the playing field for parents and their employers.

Precedent: The Human Frontier Science Program (HSFP) fellowship and the Wellcome Trust extend the fellowship period and provide additional funds to account for parental leave taken.

ProblemLack of NIH support during the transition back to work.

Solution 1:

NIH should extend postdoctoral and graduate grant eligibility (e.g. F32 or K99) by one year for each childbirth or adoption akin to the existing extension for early-stage investigators.

Impact: Currently, extensions for eligibility is granted on a case-by-case basis and is not explicit on the extent of time forgiven. Extending the time will encourage talented parents to apply for appropriate grants to facilitate their career transitions.

Precedent: It is already policy for young investigators. It is also common practice in many other countries (e.g. in Germany, grant eligibility may be extended 2 years for each child).

Solution 2:

NIH should mandate that all nursing postdocs and graduate students be provided access to a dedicated, private area equipped with a refrigerator, a sink, an outlet, and a hospital-grade breast pump in their building.

Impact: Many major health organizations recommend breastfeeding during the first year of a child’s life, but many mothers encounter logistical difficulties when they need time and space to express breastmilk at work. Federal laws require access to a private, sanitary space for milk expression; however, many lactation spaces are inconveniently located or poorly equipped. When mothers need to pump three times a day, these factors quickly add up to making milk expression incompatible with a rigorous experimental schedule in the laboratory.

ProblemHigh cost of childcare.

Solution 1:

NIH should mandate that all postdocs and graduate students be allowed to use their fellowship institutional allowances on personal childcare expenses.

Impact: Expenditures from the research allowance are regulated by individual institutional policies. Trainees often find that childcare costs are their most significant barrier to research, but cannot use money from their discretionary funds for this purpose. This change would allow the NIH to set an important standard and create another mechanism to offset high childcare costs.

Precedent: Several private fellowships allow use of their institutional allowance for childcare or provide separate funds for this purpose.

Solution 2:

NIH should create a funding mechanism to cover childcare costs exceeding 15% of family income.

Proposal: Postdocs and graduate students can apply for quarterly reimbursement of childcare expenses beyond 15% of family income (capped at $1,000 per child per month). Qualifying children must be 12 or younger. Qualifying students or postdocs must be primarily NIH-funded and employed/enrolled full-time at a non-profit, academic institution. Qualifying trainees be either single or, if married, have a spouse who is a full-time student, gainfully employed at least part-time, or disabled and unable to work.

Impact: Current postdoctoral salaries and graduate stipends are low and are not adjusted based on cost-of-living or childcare needs (see Appendix). Consequently, many postdocs seek higher paying employment or part-time work, and many graduate students choose higher paying careers upon graduation. Our proposed solution directly targets this problem, making academic careers a viable option for financially-strained postdoctoral families and ameliorating discrimination based on socioeconomic status.

Precedent: This program could be analogous to the existing NIH loan repayment program, which has improved retention of talented medical professionals in academic research.

Most postdocs and graduate students we know are fiercely passionate about their work. The duration of graduate and postdoctoral training periods are longer than ever, meaning fewer trainees can put off child-bearing until after this period. Our proposed policies will enable parents to continue their work and prevent discrimination against scientists with children. We look forward to working with you on realizing these changes.

Sincerely,

Monica Guo
Michele LeRoux
Laura Lavery

Additional Signatories

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