Catalytic Reactions

"From the Deputy Director for Intramural Research" column will return next issue. Below are comments we received for topics raised in the September-October issue, along with some general reactions.

On smoking at NIH

Instead of asking that smokers be punished even more than they are already, Gerry Dienel might hold his breath for the short time needed to traverse the deadly nicotinic zone outside the doors of NIH buildings. The don't-inhale reflex thus acquired might save his life in the event of a lab accident.

- Charles McCutchen, NIDDK

Just to add to Gerry Dienel's comments - it is worth concern that employees in Building 37 (ironically, NCI) sit on the steps overlooking the day-care center for their "smoke breaks." The area adjacent to the children's playground should be a no-smoking zone.

- Kimberly Duncan, NCI

Gerry Dienel recommends that NIH establish programs to help break people of the smoking habit. The Office of Human Resources Management, through its Division of Workforce Development, does offer a course called "Break the Smoking Habit," presented by SmokeEnders. An institute can pay for this course for an employee who is interested in stopping smoking. Dienel also recommends that NIH offer reduced health and life insurance rates for nonsmokers. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management manages the health and life insurance programs for all government employees. The NIH cannot negotiate its own rates/programs for its employees.

- Marvene Horwitz, OD

On safety and security at NIH

I realize that NIH must respond to the recent Building 37 incident quickly and responsibly. I also realize that many lab workers take the privilege to use isotopes for granted. However, the new rule requiring all rooms that are posted for radioactivity use be locked whenever unattended has made a safe situation unsafe. Here is an example. Consider the situation in which a postdoc working in one room, alone, has a sequencing gel that needs to be dried on a gel drier in a second room. After preparing the gel to be dried he now has to carry the wet gel - this takes two hands - to the second room. But when he leaves his room, he has to lock it (with his third hand?) and potentially unlock the room with the drier (removing his key from his pocket with his potentially contaminated third hand). Upon returning to his own room, he now has to reach into his pocket again to open his room! To expose this gel to film, he now has to juggle a box of film and a large cassette (or several) and close the door (with that third hand again) and again reach into his pocket for his key to open the door to the lab with the darkroom. A formerly simple situation has become very unwieldy.

A much more dangerous situation at NIH is the lack of adequate safety precautions for the numerous hazardous chemicals and carcinogens. While we are all required to take radiation-safety courses and refresher courses, there is not a similar requirement for chemical hazards. You can detect exposure and spills of radioactive compounds relatively easily - not so with many very dangerous chemicals.

- Anonymous

On Dec. 1, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a modification to NIH security policy that will make lab life a little easier. The modification allows researchers to leave posted rooms unlocked provided that no radioactive materials are in use and no radioactive waste or unsecured radioactive materials are present in the room. Concerning your second point, all NIH staff who work with hazardous chemicals or blood-borne pathogens are, in fact, required by law to take safety training in these areas. Courses are offered monthly. To obtain dates and an application form for the next courses, contact the Occupational Safety and Health Branch (phone: 496-3353; fax: 402-0313).

- Michael Gottesman, DDIR

On NCI's new leadership

Many members of NCI's professional staff have really picked up on Klausner's quote in this [September-October] issue: "It is no secret that it [the NCI] has not been a place where people have uniformly loved to work ... . It tended to be an institution run by fiat and fear." Although Klausner did not dwell on the details of this statement, the Oct. 20 edition of the Cancer Letter did. This report summarizes numerous investigations into the conduct of the very top managers of the "Old NCI," including pre-trial deposition of same [in connection with NIH's treatment of Principal Investigator Bernard Fisher after revelations of fraudulent data in the NSABP Breast Cancer Trials]. ... Klausner's "fiat and fear" quote indicates that he understands that, to greater and lesser degrees, the entire management of the "Old NCI" has been given (and in many instances have taken) the "fiat and fear" management style as their premier institutional administrative model. What steps is Klausner taking to guarantee to the professional staff of the "New NCI" that the old "fiat and fear" formula for research excellence and integrity failure will not creep back into our institutional culture?

- Henry Stevenson-Perez, NCI

On postdoc concerns

The want ads in recent issues of Science say a lot about the extramural community's perception of postdoctoral positions at NIH. There, emblazoned in black and white across the top of an entire page, is "Post-Doctoral Opportunities at the National Institutes of Health." NIH has tremendous resources and there is a glut of Ph.D.s. So why does NIH need to advertise for postdocs? Ten years ago, an NIH ad for postdocs was unheard of. Most new Ph.D.s wanted to work at NIH, but now, they don't. What's happened? The answer is quite simple. ... Postdocs are flocking to institutions that can get them into the best jobs as soon as possible, and NIH ain't one of them. Many senior NIH officials state that the new tenure-track policy scares postdocs away. Forget the new tenure-track policy - it means little to postdocs. Most fellows know that it is extremely rare to land a tenure-track position at the institution where you were a postdoc, so any tenure-track-policy changes are irrelevant. The negatives to being a fellow at NIH are as follows:

1) It is becoming increasingly difficult to land a tenure-track position in academia with five or fewer years of postdoctoral experience. It is necessary to develop some sort of name recognition within a field and, generally, five years is far too short a period to develop such recognition. The current policy of limiting fellows to five years, with a few exceptions, basically throws the fellows out the door before they are competitive for the best jobs in the extramural environment.

2) The current tight funding levels make grant-writing skills extremely important. A mentor who is very successful at obtaining funding can be an invaluable resource for a fellow writing his or her first grant. ... Most senior NIH scientists have had very little experience applying for NIH grants, and courses on grantsmanship do not substitute for actually going through the ordeal a few times before you are on your own.

3) Because of the tight funding situation, many universities are requiring their departments to hire only new faculty who already have grants. ... Thus, an NIH fellow has fewer job opportunities than an extramural postdoc.

These three problems make NIH a very unattractive place to do a fellowship... Any intelligent grad student considering postdoc positions will take these factors into account and consider NIH a less than optimal place to obtain postdoctoral training. And any mentor who has his or her graduate students' best interests in mind will steer them away from NIH.

What solutions can I offer? The first step would be to establish an NIH equivalent of academia's research track by setting up renewable, limited-term contracts. After five years of postdoc work, a talented young scientist could be offered a five-year contract ... . At the end of the five years, the scientist would be reviewed by a group of intramural and extramural scientists, and if his or her work has been of sufficient quality, the contract can be renewed. This procedure could be repeated indefinitely, until the scientist lands a more stable position or until his or her work begins to falter. This process would allow young scientists to develop some name recognition and to demonstrate that they are capable of doing independent research.

Second, NIH needs to set up a system for NIH fellows to apply for grants through NIH. It is important that the application process and the review process be identical to what extramural scientists endure. This is to ensure that the funded intramural applications are indeed competitive with funded extramural applications. To preserve harmony with the extramural community, successful intramural applicants' grants could be funded from intramural funds. Given the current low level of funding, this should not cost the intramural program very much. Successfully funded intramural scientists could then use the money to obtain academic positions. If NIH would establish such mechanisms, it could again attract the best young scientists in the country.

- Robert Caudle, NIDR

I applaud the creativity shown in the ideas that you suggest to improve the career prospects of NIH postdoctoral fellows, but must take exception to some of the conclusions you reach in your letter. NIH continues to attract the world's best postdocs; two of the four winners of the 1995 Pfizer awards for best thesis research are fellows at NIH. We have a vast excess of applications over postdoc positions available. The reason we advertise is to be sure that the opportunities at NIH are known to all qualified individuals. The best tenure-track positions in academia go to scientists with less than five years of postdoctoral experience and no independent research support; too many years in one institution without a long-term commitment increases, rather than decreases the difficulty of finding a good job, hence, our five-year limit on NIH postdoctoral experience.

- Michael Gottesman, DDIR

On the Dent cartoon

I am absolutely appalled by the cartoon and its implications. I can assure you that the M.D. researchers in my section in Building 37 do not have more or qualitatively "better" space than the Ph.D. researchers. If you examined the space allotment in Building 10, where there is a higher density of M.D. researchers than Ph.D.s, there does not appear to be an excess of space. Rather than emphasizing the potential bases for divisions between different segments of the NIH community and potential sources of combustion, I would prefer The Catalyst to catalyze synthetic reactions.

- Edward Sausville, NCI

I found the cartoon to be pretty sexist in nature. The last thing I expected to see circulated among NIH intramural scientists - who have been accused of sexist attitudes in the past - is a cartoon in which a woman visits a laboratory and says, "It looks like a messy kitchen! Doesn't anyone do the dishes around here?" I mean, really.

- Jaylan Turkkan, NIDA

Since I first saw it, I have been annoyed by what I perceive as the whiny tone and essential lack of humor in the comic strip about postdocs. I know how badly Ph.D. postdocs are treated at this and other institutions from having a spouse who was one and having spent several years in graduate school myself. However, the strip dealing with issues of space has finally caused me to set finger to keyboard. If Dent thinks Ph.D.s have less space than M.D.s, he is grossly mistaken. Clinical fellows are routinely packed into what are essentially library carrels or less. I am an M.D. with tenure who has been here for going on seven years. I have a quarter of a module to call my own. It makes meeting with visitors, frankly, embarassing. (Of course, the sweaty bike clothes and piles of food don't help either.) It appears to me that it is administrators who have more (and nicer) space than anyone, relative to rank, but would any of us trade places?

Ph.D. postdocs have plenty to complain about; that's not at issue. Rather, I suggest that discontent be expressed in more constructive and less divisive terms. If Dent wishes to question the difference in status between M.D.s and Ph.D.s in society at large, let him do so. I think there would be much sympathy from M.D.s (many of whom are also Ph.D.s) at this institution, but let's not fight each other over what are, after all, pretty meager spoils.

- Eric Wassermann, NINDS

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