“Staff Scientist”: A viable academic research career option or just another name for a post doc?

staff scientist

The traditional organizational structure of an academic research institution, such as at Rutgers, is a collection of laboratories which may or may not have overlapping research goals, and independently run by Principal Investigators (PI). Steven Hyman, director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, argued for restructuring of traditional scientific organizations in his article published in Nature last May 2017(1). Specifically, he believes that progress in biological research can only be rapidly advanced through the introduction of staff scientists in academic institutions; a staff scientist is a PhD or postdoc who wants to keep doing bench research in academia but do not want to become a principal investigator. He proposes a new structural organization of research institutions, which incorporates the position of staff scientists working alongside faculty, such as in the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, and the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in California. He also mentions that although staff scientists are common and highly regarded in other scientific fields, there seems to be more of a resistance within the biomedical field, which he regarded as “irrational”.

One question is whether this structure should replace the old organization within all research universities, or will its feasibility and benefit be largely dependent on several factors, i.e. the focus of research, the size of the institute, etc. As a specific example, will this model work for the the Rutgers Brain Health Institute? Sadly, I think that may be a question of money; staff scientists will understandably cost more than a graduate student, and over the years, the budget for personnel in NIH grants have significantly reduced Another viable option would be the availability of grants specific for staff scientists, such as the NIH Research Specialist Award (2,3).

As this position is scarce and poorly understood, a significant resistance to the idea of staff scientist revolves around certain ambiguity and misconception about the position. Is a staff scientist a technician, who doesn’t necessarily need a PhD, or more like a PI who does not have to teach or write grants? The ambiguity of career development of a staff scientist is also an issue. Institutions need to have a clear career track outlined for staff scientists and must differentiate it from a postdoc for added security in this field. The Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel has exactly this, where the staff scientist track is an academic tenure track broken down into 4 ranks: Assistant Staff Scientist, Associate Staff Scientist, Senior Staff Scientist, and Senior Research Fellow (4).

I agree with Hyman that staff scientist positions should become more available in biology. I think individual laboratories, and even institutions themselves, will benefit greatly from having highly-trained, non-tenure researchers focused on doing research. Staff scientists provide the kind of “continuity” you can’t get from less permanent graduate students and postdocs. However, there needs to be more clarity on what the position entails, how it is different from a post doc. Within the industry setting, staff scientist positions are a lot more common. As a lot of the current biomedical research nowadays require a more collaborative environment, academic institutions need to seriously think about whether an integrated institute with centralized staff scientists is the next step in progressing research.

References:

  1. Biology needs more staff scientists. http://www.nature.com/news/biology-needs-more-staff-scientists-1.21991?WT.ec_id=NATURE-20170518&spMailingID=54084575&spUserID=MTUxMDUyNjIyNzE5S0&spJobID=1162852950&spReportId=MTE2Mjg1Mjk1MAS2
  2. NCI Research Specialist Award. https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/PAR-16-025.html
  3. Research Specialist Awards Highlight Important Work of Staff Scientists. https://www.cityofhope.org/staff-scientists-awarded-grants
  4. Staff Scientists @ Weizmann. http://www.weizmann.ac.il/Staff_Scientists/

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