The need to consolidate staff scientist titles

Expanding the ranks of staff scientists—Ph.D.-level, non-trainee, non-faculty researchers—has been a consistent recommendation in reports proposing reforms to the biomedical research enterprise. However, several roadblocks, including how the position should be compensated and how it should be structured—titles and career development opportunities, for example—have impeded full implementation of the recommendation.

In a positive step toward addressing staff scientist funding, the National Cancer Institute launched the R50 Research Specialist Award in 2016. The program provides salary support “for exceptional scientists who want to pursue research within the context of an existing cancer research program, but not serve as independent investigators,” and is currently in its third year of a five-year pilot.

Important information about staff scientist career structure can be inferred from R50 awardees. Using data from NIH RePORTER, I found the R50 program made 51 awards to individual scientists over 2016 and 2017. Of these awardees, I was able to determine job titles for 48. I found there were 23 distinct titles for these staff scientists with the most common being “Assistant Professor” and “Director” (Table).

Table: Titles of R50 awardees
Title Occurrences
Director 7
Assistant professor 6
Research assistant professor 4
Research associate 4
Research associate professor 4
Staff scientist 3
Manager 2
Research professor 2
Research scientist 2
Assistant Research professor 1
Assistant scientist 1
Associate director 1
Associate project scientist 1
Associate research scientist 1
Bioinformatics specialist 1
Instructor 1
Postdoctoral fellow 1
Research investigator 1
Scientific director/manager 1
Senior computational biologist 1
Senior research assistant 1
Senior research scientist 1
Senior statistical analyst 1
Title not found 3
Total 51

The NCI intentionally cast a wide net with the R50 program, aiming to support “researchers within a research program, core facility managers, and data scientists.” Nevertheless, the wide variety of staff scientist titles is alarming because it impedes tracking of these scientists and hampers oversight efforts to safeguard against abuse.

This is reminiscent of the situation of defining postdoctoral scholars. The National Postdoctoral Association reported 37 titles were used for postdocs at universities across the U.S. The proliferation of postdoc titles, combined with patchwork institutional policies regarding postdoc employment, promotes wide disparities in pay and benefits and unreliable data collection on this important population.

Expanding staff scientist positions in biomedical research has broad support, especially from postdocs. Developing a consistent set of staff scientist titles will allow institutions to accurately project the cost of employing staff scientists, promote career progression and development opportunities and facilitate tracking mechanisms for nationwide data collection. Absent this, expanding staff scientist positions could replicate some of the worst aspects of the postdoc position—loosely defined, widely ranging benefits and career development opportunities, and poorly tracked—and will give rise to ample opportunities for institutions and faculty to mistreat those holding these positions.

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