NIH raises postdoctoral salaries, but below target

Top US funding agency manages record increase in key programme for younger scientists, and sees gains in overall equity, while absorbing net cut in its annual budget

April 24, 2024
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Source: iStock/Keith Rousseau

The US National Institutes of Health is raising the minimum salary for its main category of postdoctoral researchers by 8 per cent, its largest single-year jump, but still short of the level recommended in an agency analysis.

The increase, higher than the 5 per cent rise over the past year in the nation’s overall inflation rate, covers 5,000 scientists funded through the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards.

Those beneficiaries do not include the Kirschstein programme’s predoctoral students, who will get a 4 per cent increase, or the far larger number of postdoctoral students whose pay is set by their universities.

The NIH said it was making the commitment despite absorbing a slight decrease in funding from Congress in the federal government’s most recent annual budget.

That decision on researcher pay hikes, the NIH said, reflected the agency’s long-standing attempts to balance salary levels with the number of Kirschstein scholars it could support. “The approach allows for an immediate stipend increase without drastic cuts to the number of available awards,” Michael Lauer, the NIH’s deputy director in charge of extramural research, said in announcing the increases.

In a sign the NIH might be finding a productive balance with younger scholars, the agency announced separately that its data showed a multi-year decline in inequalities in its main research project grant funding – as measured by the share of award dollars won by the top 1 per cent and top 10 per cent of scientists – apparently due in large part to the Next Generation Researchers Initiative that it implemented in 2017 to help increase funding for younger researchers.

Last December, the NIH’s Advisory Committee to the Director, a panel of experts consisting primarily of established academic scientists, issued a report on NIH-supported postdoctoral training that, as its first recommendation, urged higher pay and benefits for all NIH-supported postdoctoral scholars.

The author group that prepared the report said it “feels strongly that increasing compensation for postdoctoral scholars is the top priority”. The experts suggested a minimum salary of $70,000 (£56,000) in 2024 for postdoctoral workers in the Kirschstein programme. The 8 per cent raise, however, brings that number only to about $61,000 for next year.

While the goal is “to allow for an immediate pay increase without drastic cuts to the number of available NRSA awards,” the NIH said, “a small reduction in the number of positions is expected”.

The NIH is the world’s largest single public funder of biomedical and behavioural research, and the largest provider of basic research money to US universities. Its lack of any budget increase this year – meaning a cut relative to inflation – is due largely to the expiration of a 2016 measure, the Cures Act, in which Congress began a decade-long budget boost of about $5 billion for the NIH budget, which now sits at around $47 billion.

Under the circumstances, the NIH appeared to have made a good decision, said a leading expert in research equity, Donna Ginther, a professor of economics at the University of Kansas who was part of the author group that wrote the report for the NIH’s advisory committee.

The NIH data showing an extended decline in funding inequalities was also a promising sign, Professor Ginther said.

“This is a step in the right direction for sure,” she said. “I am hopeful that the salary adjustments increase in a three-year time frame as opposed to longer.”

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