Tenure and Tenure Track: The Case of Foreign Scientists

Thanks to special authorities contained in the Public Health Service Act, NIH can hire the best available scientists for its tenure-track and tenured openings - even if those scientists happen to come from other countries. For example, two of the 26 people granted tenure by the Central Tenure Committee between June 1994 and October 1995 were foreign nationals. Furthermore, 33, or about 16%, of NIH's 201 tenure-track investigators are foreign nationals.

Gaining tenure or being placed on the tenure track does not instantly shift a foreign scientist into the same employment status as his or her American counterparts, however. Until tenured and tenure track scientists become U.S. citizens - a process that usually takes at least five years after they become permanent residents and receive their green cards, they are still employed under the titles of "visiting associate" or "visiting scientist," rather than as General Schedule (GS) Civil Service employees, who must be U.S. citizens. That situation has created some confusion among scientists and administrators about the status and opportunities for pay increases for tenured and tenure-track foreign scientists. For information on specific cases, contact the Office of Intramural Research (phone: 496-4920). We asked Philip Chen and Richard Wyatt of that office to respond to the following commonly asked questions:

Q: Can a tenured or tenure-track foreign scientist be paid at the same level as a comparable tenured or tenure-track U.S. scientist?

A: Yes. However, pay rates are discretionary within the established ranges for visiting associates and visiting scientists, rather than being taken from a fixed pay table.

Q: Are there any restrictions on the GS level at which a tenured foreign scientist can be brought into the Civil Service system after he or she becomes a U.S. citizen? For example, can a tenured foreign scientist be brought in at GS-15 after gaining citizenship?

A: As you might suspect, Civil Service appointment standards are blind to one's past citizenship. Appointment at GS-15 is based on qualifications.

Q: What should tenured or tenure-track foreign scientists do if they feel they are not being fairly compensated?

A: Speak first to their supervisors, section heads, or laboratory or branch chiefs and - if necessary - to their scientific directors, who have the authority to set pay within certain ranges. Exceptional increases beyond set ranges may be granted by the Office of Intramural Research.

Q: Can a tenured or tenure-track foreign scientist be "promoted" before becoming a U.S. citizen?

A: Basically, yes, in that salary increases equivalent to a grade-level promotion for GS employees may be conferred, following a promotion-review process equivalent to that used for GS employees.

Q: What recognition can tenured or tenure-track foreign scientists be given in lieu of an official promotion?

A: They are certainly eligible for "exceptional" pay increases, if justified by circumstances, and for a wide variety of employee awards. Administrative responsibilities may be conducted on an "acting" basis, pending citizenship and a permanent Civil Service position.

Q: Are tenured or tenure-track foreign scientists offered insurance, retirement, and other benefits comparable to GS employees' benefits?

A: Yes. Because visiting associates and visiting scientists are employed by the federal government, they receive such benefits if their initial appointments are for more than 12 months.

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