Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Dear Postdoc Colleague: Yes, the NSF is Serious About Career-Life Balance

The NSF just released a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) announcing a very interesting initiative for postdocs: In short, principal investigators of NSF grants can submit a request for supplemental funding to cover salary support for additional personnel to sustain research while the postdoc is on family leave.

The DCL is part of the larger NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative. Note the straightforward logic by which the NSF arrives at the necessity of such programs: (1) The NSF must develop the strongest possible STEM talent pool. (2) Women are pursuing advanced study in STEM fields, but they are not advancing proportionally to senior ranks in academe.  (3) There is a clear research from longitudinal data showing that the formation of family is the single greatest factor that accounts for the departure of women from the pipeline between the receipt of the PhD and achieving the rank of tenured professor. THEREFORE, the NSF must foster family-friendly policies if it is to retain more women and thus keep the STEM talent pool as strong as possible. (I highly recommend this short video in which Prof. Mary Ann Mason explains her study; the link above will take you to the full written report.)

Talk, as they say, is cheap. So, what is noteworthy here is that there is real money on offer, which indicates that the NSF really means to take on this problem. So, how much money is the NSF setting aside for this? The DCL offers 3 months of salary support, for a maximum amount of salary of $12,000. Importantly, benefits and overhead can be on top of this. At Harvard these rates are 28% and 69%, respectively, and so the real cost would be just shy of $26,000.  The program appears to be NSF-wide, and so potentially this will add up to a significant total.

A couple other quick items: One, the program is gender neutral. Two, the NSF doesn't want to know why you are on family leave, i.e. you don't need to describe the rationale for the leave and hence you don't need to disclose any private information.

At first glance, this program will help achieve a straightforward goal, namely to allow the postdoc's research program to continue to advance even while he or she is on leave.  But one doesn't need to dig much deeper to see another very important benefit, namely a (potentially) much happier relationship between the PI and the postdoc. Keep in mind the NSF already allows grant-supported employees (including postdocs) to receive paid family leave through the benefits pool.  (The trick is that most universities don't have paid leave policies for postdocs; but if they did, NSF would be happy to pay for it through the benefits rate.) Now the NSF is also willing to pay for someone to do the work while the postdoc is on leave!

So, in the past, the postdoc considering taking an (unpaid) family leave would be in the uncomfortable position of telling his or her PI that their research program was going to stall.  Now the NSF is trying to set up a situation where not only is the leave paid, but the PI's grant is increased and there are salary, benefits, and overhead to pay for additional personnel.

We are only in year 2 of the 10-year Career-Life Balance Initiative, and I am excited to see the NSF continue to role out these thoughtful and ambitious programs.

I do hope that our NASA colleagues are going to follow the NSF's lead and consider implementing similar policies. While my impression is that at many NASA centers there is a conscious consideration of these issues as they relate to NASA staff, it is not reflected in their current grant policies. This is a shame since NASA exerts an enormous influence over academic astronomy through its funded research program.  Now that the threat to the STEM workforce presented by family-unfriendly policies has been exposed, I am eager to see NASA help lead the charge alongside the NSF.