Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Guest Post: Working to Level the Playing Field at NASA

By Joan Schmelz
NASA Postdoctoral Program Director
Universities Space Research Association (USRA)

A recently approved policy now allows NASA postdoctoral fellows the opportunity to continue receiving stipends during time away from work. This time away can be for a variety of family and medical issues, including a serious health condition, birth or adoption of a child, parental care, or other special circumstances. This is a major improvement over the old procedure, where stipends stopped while the fellows were absent from their posts.

I have been working to get this policy in place since I became the Director of the NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP) back in February 2019. Friends – alums of the program – shared their stories of how they tried to navigate the old system. Under the previous policy, the amount of time away from work needed to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. The burden was on the fellow, who was dependent on the goodwill of their NASA research advisor. This burden has finally been lifted with a new twelve-week guarantee.

I think of this as a policy for the 21st century. I’ve described it as ‘one giant leap’ for work-life balance at NASA. If you want to level the playing field, this is where you start.

My company, Universities Space Research Association (USRA), which manages NPP, partnered with NASA to create the new policy.

“Our early-career scientists juggle many priorities as they get established in challenging careers,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate morning in Washington. “I applaud this new policy, which will help these young people to succeed and become the leaders we’ll need tomorrow.”

The details of the new policy are described below and can be found under "Absense from the Appointment" in the Policies and Procedures of the NPP home page.

A Fellow may take a prolonged break from NPP research activities for up to 12 weeks during the appointment period for a serious health condition, birth or adoption of a child, parental care, or other special circumstances. Prior to the absence or as soon as possible thereafter, the Fellow should notify the NPP Advisor, NPP Center Representative, and USRA of the absence. The Fellow and NPP Advisor must assess the impact on the NPP research activities and milestones if any.

  • Option A: The Fellow may continue the monthly stipend during this prolonged absence. In this case, the Fellow’s appointment will not be extended by the period of absence.
  • Option B: The Fellow may choose to suspend their stipend during this prolonged absence. In such cases, the appointment period will be extended by the period of absence. NASA will continue to pay its share of the health insurance if the Fellow is already enrolled in the insurance through USRA. The Fellow, however, must continue to pay their out-of-pocket portion of the premium during the unpaid absence. Premium payments may be deducted from stipend payments.

About NPP
The NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP) provides early-career and more senior scientists the opportunity to share in NASA's mission. Fellows work on 1 to 3-year assignments with NASA scientists and engineers at NASA centers and institutes to advance NASA's missions in earth science, heliophysics, planetary science, astrophysics, space bioscience, aeronautics, engineering, human exploration and space operations, astrobiology, and science management. NPP Fellows contribute to our national scientific exploration, confirm NASA's leadership in fundamental research, and complement the efforts of NASA's partners in the national science community.
NPP was established in 2005 when it transitioned from a program run by the National Research Council (NRC). Both NPP and its predecessor provide opportunities for scientists and engineers to work at NASA centers on NASA research, with a legacy that goes back for over 40 years. More information about NPP is available at npp.usra.edu.

About USRA
The Universities Space Research Association (USRA) is a nonprofit corporation chartered to advance space-related science, technology, and engineering. USRA was founded in 1969, under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences at the request of the U.S. Government. It operates scientific institutes and facilities and conducts other major research and educational programs, under Federal funding from NASA, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Department of Energy, and other agencies. USRA engages the university community and employs in-house technical leadership and project management expertise. The governance of USRA is grounded in 111 major research universities. USRA is located in Columbia, Maryland. More information about USRA is available at usra.edu.

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