The effort to more clearly delineate NIH's permanent scientific staff recently reached a milestone. After more than four years of discussing, drafting, and revising, NIH's scientific directors and the Office of Intramural Research finally signed off Dec. 12 on a policy defining the role of the staff scientist at NIH.
In this issue, we present the new NIH policy that the institutes, centers, or divisions (ICDs) will use to recommend to the deputy director for intramural research (DDIR) the appointment, review, and promotion of staff scientists.
People who do the work of staff scientists have been an important force behind successful research at NIH since its very beginning. Staff scientists may run state-of-the-art facilities. They are the keepers of knowledge about how to make a technique work, to get a culture to grow, or to move a postdoc off the dime when he or she gets stuck. They provide essential counsel in experimental design, statistical analysis, and clinical care. Most people who work with staff scientists agree: our labs wouldn't work without them. But there's one big difference between staff scientists and their tenured colleagues: they don't have their own independent resources.
For more on staff scientists and their work, see the associated article: "Being a Staff Scientist"
Tenure-track scientists have been granted independent resources to run their own BSC-reviewed research programs for a defined period of time, possibly leading to tenure. Staff scientists are granted no independent resources, are supervised by tenured scientists, may work collaboratively with other scientists, and cannot expect to initiate or carry out their own independent research. Their evaluation by the BSC hinges on the scientific merit of the independent investigator who supervises them. Senior technical support personnel, not all of whom have doctoral degrees, are permanent, senior support staff who are not covered by the other scientific job titles.
Today, some senior NIH scientists are confused about which of these job titles they hold. Before the institution of new tenuring policies, "tenured" was equivalent to "permanent," and many of these senior staff have never undergone a formal tenure review that would distinguish staff scientists from true tenured scientists. The only real distinction has been in the way these scientists work and in their potential career options.
For long-time permanent scientists, the process of determining who is a staff scientist and formally assigning the title will occur over the next year as the scientific directors, occasionally with the aid of their BSCs, decide on a case-by-case basis which permanent scientists have independent resources. For some, this process will be painful, but it will not change substantially what they do or the importance of their work for NIH.
Criteria for Appointment or Promotion of Staff Scientists And Facility Heads
A staff scientist is an NIH employee with a relevant doctoral-level degree on a permanent appointment without expectations of independent research and without independent resources. For conversion to staff scientist, an employee must be working with a research team that is performing research of sufficient importance to warrant an appointment of a staff scientist, and the candidate should have the sophisticated skills and knowledge essential on a permanent basis in the laboratory to which the staff scientist is assigned. A subset of staff scientists includes facility heads, who independently manage a substantial core facility (for example, a sequencing laboratory or a nuclear magnetic resonance laboratory) that provides central support for more than one independent investigator.
This may be either the first permanent appointment for a member of the support staff with a doctoral degree after completing a training position or a promotion from a GS-12 position. This appointment will be based on the expectation that the individual will be able to function as a staff scientist with minimal supervision and, in addition, has the ability to work effectively with others, including trainees, technicians, colleagues, and supervisors. It is also expected that such individuals will promote their supervisor's research program by independently informing themselves of new approaches, technological or otherwise, and by being knowledgeable about scientific resources (both human and material) at the NIH and elsewhere.
In general, for promotion to the GS-14 level, the individual is expected to have developed a substantial record of achievement at the GS-13 level or its equivalent and to have played a major support role within a quality research program. It is expected that the individual will have made major contributions to peer-reviewed publications as evidenced by co-authorship on a reasonable number of publications in journals generally acknowledged to be of high quality, and exhibited other evidence of being held in high regard by peers, such as being consulted by others at NIH or elsewhere for advice and/or assistance. The expertise of the staff scientist and evidence of high regard by peers should be documented by at least three letters of reference. Outstanding grasp of subject material should be evidenced in a seminar presented to the ICD promotion committee. Given these criteria, promotion of staff scientists to GS-14 will be infrequent.
Appointment at the GS-15 level shall reflect exceptional achievement or other contributions that significantly promote the mission of the individual's own ICD and/or other ICDs. Such individuals will be expected to have exceeded considerably the criteria for GS-14, including evidence of an extraordinary grasp of subject material in the presentation of a seminar to the ICD promotion committee. As distinguished from a GS-14, the GS-15 may be required to supervise doctoral-level or senior permanent staff if the laboratory or facility in which they work is large. Further, the individual must have developed a record of high achievement for a substantial number of years, documented by at least five letters from referees who are not recent collaborators, including at least three letters from outside the ICD, and/or the individual must have made significant methodological or other contributions to the scientific literature. Given these criteria, promotion of staff scientists to GS-15 will be rare.
1. The laboratory or branch chief (L/BC) requests of the scientific director (SD) permission to appoint a staff scientist.
2. The SD reviews the resources of the laboratory or branch, the latest BSC review, and the overall productivity and accomplishments of the tenured scientist for whom the staff scientist would work.
3. If the proposed candidate is on a non-permanent appointment, or if an outside recruitment is requested, meaningful advertising as required by civil service regulations must occur. A search committee, not chaired by the supervisor, should be employed for all outside recruitments, as well as for internal appointments at the discretion of the director of the ICD and the SD. For the appointment of staff scientists who serve as facility heads, a national competitive search process is required to identify the most highly qualified candidate.
4. If a search committee is not employed, the SD shall seek the advice of an ICD promotion committee in reviewing the candidate and shall discuss the request with the ICD director, unless the authority to make such appointments has been delegated.
5. The SD shall forward the case to the DDIR, who has authority to approve staff scientist appointments, including facility heads. Cases shall include
6. If the proposed candidate is already on a permanent civil service appointment, the process for appointment as a staff scientist will proceed as in steps 1 and 2 above and be summarized in a memorandum of request to the DDIR, routed through the ICD director. The DDIR will retain full approval authority for this appointment. The complete package for such an appointment will include this memorandum, a CV and bibliography, the most recent BSC review of the laboratory or branch, the personnel profile of the laboratory or branch, and a draft memorandum from the SD to the candidate explaining the position.
7. The DDIR will review the package and seek advice from subject-matter experts where special NIH-wide review committees exist (e.g., Epidemiology and Biostatistics Review Committee, Computer Scientist Review Committee, etc.).
8. The DDIR will notify the SD of his or her decision.
9. The DDIR will submit all approved cases for information and discussion retrospectively by the Board of Scientific Directors. The SDs will discuss the need for adjustments to the staff scientist policy.
10. Promotions of staff scientists will be proposed and evaluated within the ICDs by a duly-constituted
promotion committee, the SD, and the ICD director. While approval by the Board of Scientific Directors is
not required, the DDIR will review and approve all promotions after seeking the advice of NIH-wide special
review committees (e.g., Epidemiologist/Biostatistician Review Committee, Computer Scientist Review Panel,
etc.) where they have been appointed by the DDIR.... Promotion of a staff scientist to GS-14 will
be infrequent, and promotion to GS-15, rare. In contrast, promotion of tenured scientists to these levels is
expected in their normal career progression. Nevertheless, it is expected that facility heads and staff
physicians will more often be promoted to GS-14 and GS-15 than staff scientists.
Being a Staff Scientist: The View of Two
More than 20 biomedical researchers from a wide range of disciplines have come aboard as staff scientists since NIH first started using the job title in April 1994. Two members of that pioneering group are Chamelli Jhappan and Robert Kreitman of NCI's Laboratory of Molecular Biology, who agreed to provide some insights on how staff scientists approach their jobs - and their science.
"I think you have to be careful about labeling people. In most labs, people don't care what your title is - it's what you do that counts," says Jhappan, who came to NCI in 1986 as a postdoc and became a staff scientist in April 1995 on the strength of her skills in making transgenic mouse models of human disease. Among the creations she helped her lab to produce were several mouse strains that overexpress pig transforming growth factor (TGF) ß-1, human TGF a, and mouse Int-3 and that serve as models of breast cancer.
Although Jhappan would eventually like to become a tenured scientist, at this point in her career, she is content with working on collaborative research projects and providing the lab with a type of technical expertise that is vital to achieving its goals. She enjoys the freedom from the tenure-track headaches of budgets and the hiring and training of staff. "I like to do the bench work myself," she says, adding that she couldn't have done many of her transgenic mouse studies or developed difficult skills, such as making "knockout" mice, if her time had been consumed by managerial and publishing pressures.
However, Jhappan bristles a bit at the new NIH policy's assumption that staff scientists will not routinely tackle independent research projects. In fact, Jhappan says that in the 10 years she's been working with her section chief, Glenn Merlino, she's been allowed to be the lead author on papers and to "make my own decisions, plan my own experiments." Furthermore, the staff scientist emphasizes that she doesn't simply make transgenic mice for other scientists upon demand. Mostly, she trains other researchers how to make such mice themselves, and then only if they are working on projects that she finds scientifically interesting.
Kreitman is a key player in the Laboratory of Molecular Biology's launch of a clinical trial of an innovative treatment for leukemia and lymphoma. The trial, based on benchwork by Kreitman and other lab members, will test an agent made by hooking up a cell-killing Pseudomonas exotoxin with antibody fragments, called variable area fragments, or FVs, specific to cancer cells. "One thing I do that others in the lab have not done is to obtain fresh malignant cells from patients so we can test the agents... and look at their effectiveness," says Kreitman, who sees patients at the Clinical Center once a week. "Fresh cells may provide us with a better predictor [than immortalized cell lines] of what will happen to our agents in the patient."
When he compares his staff-scientist position to that of a tenured scientist, Kreitman says his job stacks up pretty well. "A major difference is that they [tenured scientists] can hire postdocs, but it's difficult to attract the best ones to NIH right now," he says. "They also can hire technicians, but with the hiring freeze, even people with tenure are having difficulties doing that." He also notes that staff scientists are permanent, just like tenured scientists; that his lab chief, Ira Pastan, has provided him with plenty of resources, and that he can set up the lab's clinical trial free from the tenure-track demands of planning independent projects and negotiating budgets.
As for the all-important issue of independence, Kreitman says he's found that most NIH scientists, tenured or not, conduct a significant amount of their research on a collaborative basis. Furthermore, noting that he and his lab chief share the common aim of developing new cancer therapeutics, Kreitman says, "If your goals are similar to those of your boss, I see no need to try to do things totally independently."
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