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A few unoriginal recommendations

March 2, 2012

Chemicalbilology and GertyZ started a discussion about NIH NOT-OD-12-031 otherwise known as “ideas of things that could help improved the diversity of the biomedical workforce”.  I’ve been meaning to chime in, but I’m a little late to the party because *ahem* I’ve been on vacation.  A real vacation involving airplanes, jet-lag and an out-of-office auto-response to incoming e-mails.  This means I’ve missed the public comment deadline.  Blog posts, however, can’t be late.

Training for an academic position takes a long time, meaning it is likely that the start date of your first R01 and the end of fertile years will be synchronized.  Therefore if biological children are part of your life plan, they probably are going to happen in the (lower paying) training period.  Geographic mobility, both temporary (for conferences) and longer term (as you move for very specific training opportunities or that fancy coveted J-O-B) is pretty much required.  This means that it is likely that for at least a portion of your training, you’ll be far far away from family and friends and any free baby-watching they might otherwise cheerfully provide.  Thus you’ll contract with child care professionals.  The thing is, child care professionals and scientific trainees have pretty comparable salaries.  One should never look at ones salary and the child care bill at the same time because it is likely that you’ll realize you’re *paying* several hundred dollars a month to go to work.  Scientists love their science.  Parents love their kids.  But people like to eat and to sleep someplace safe.  And particularly when the family income would go up if the lower-paid parent quit (or took one of those higher paying industry jobs with fancy benefits we all hear rumors of), it’s not hard to figure out why a lot of scientific talent leaves the pipeline.

Subsidized child care:

Where I’m at right now at least, both the availability and the cost of childcare pose significant challenges to families with young children.  Wait-lists, even for non-university child care centers, are common.  There is, of course, an on-site daycare at my university.  We dutifully signed up for the wait-list when our first child was in utero.  We were offered a spot (that we could in no way afford, even with the shallow sliding scale they have in place) when xe turned 3 and a half (four years on the wait-list!) and were given 72 hours to decide if we wanted it or not.  We visited, did the math and declined, especially considering that our second child was in the picture by this time.  Rumor has it that the infant spots are so coveted that they are held as bargaining chips for faculty recruitment.  I want my $50 registration fee back.  Perhaps the NIH could provide diversity grants to universities to help build more and/or subsidize child care centers.

Travel awards with funds for childcare:

When preparing to go to a conference, I used to just be worried about getting my poster printed in time.  Now leaving for an extended period of time is a both a financial and a logistics problem of considerable proportion.  I’ve heard rumors of special travel awards that some institutions offer that allocate sums in the $500 range specifically to help defray the cost of child care so that a parent can attend a scientific meeting.  This could cover airfare to import a grandparent or for the kid/other parent to come along, babysitting, pre-prepared meals, any of a million or so small things that need to happen to pull off a disappearing act.  If the money can’t just be dispensed as a straight up grant ahead of departure (no receipts), then reimbursement should be quick.  Currently, there is no mechanism available to me to help defray the significant costs of covering family responsibilities when I travel.  Consequently, I travel much less than I know I should at this point in my career, simply because I can not afford to do so.

I’ll point out that these sorts of awards will be of particular value to trainees from economically underpriveledged backgrounds.  I’m fortunate in that my family made it into the upper part of the middle class and while there are certainly issues, I know that if it came down to it, I can rely upon them to pull me out a financial hole.  This provides me with enough security to continue with my relative-to-other-available-options-given-my-training-and-skill-set underpayed position.  My wife’s family comes from the lower part of the middle class and we are the financial safety net.  So far, no disaster.  But I sure feel like an asshole when I know that, for example, health issues – usually those involving parts of the body that insuance doesn’t cover like teeth or eyes – aren’t being addressed for financial reasons, and we can’t step up quietly to help.  I can only imagine the pressure on someone coming from a less-priveledged background.  Relieving some of the intense financial pressure of supporting dependents through a long training period – without shifting that burden onto individual laboratories – will help to retain talent, particularly that of individuals from under-represented groups that are currently leaking out of the pipeline.

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