UC’s Opportunity to Shape the Future of Scientific Research

Today, my union (UAW Local 5810) and the University of California will start bargaining a new contract for over 6,000 postdoctoral scholars at UC. Postdoctoral researchers are responsible for much of the critical front-line research that makes UC a world class research university. This current round of bargaining is not only an opportunity to agree on a new set of rights and benefits, but also to make the UC world-class in yet another way — by significantly shaping the face of scientific research at UC and beyond for years to come.

Many of the issues we will be discussing at the bargaining table — promoting gender equality in STEM and other fields, recruiting and retaining researchers from underrepresented populations, and safeguarding the careers of tomorrow’s leaders— address critical challenges facing the University.

The way forward is clear. In the broadest sense, we must ensure the next generation of researchers is supported in a manner that reflects their central place in the University of California’s $6-billion annual research enterprise. There are ample avenues through which the postdoc union and the University can and must work together to create the type of conditions that will facilitate such an environment.

In a recent Huffington Post piece endorsing the Department of Labor’s new overtime threshold, the NIH Director Francis Collins and the Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez acknowledged, “that postdoctoral fellows are generally paid salaries that do not adequately reflect their advanced education and expertise.” They go on to state “increasing the salary threshold for postdocs represents an opportunity to encourage more of our brightest young minds to consider choosing careers in science.”

Given that most UC postdocs makes less than the average salary for someone with a 2-year associate’s degree, postdoc pay is clearly an issue which we can address through bargaining. But the challenges in shaping the future of science goes beyond compensation.

Of critical importance is addressing the persistent loss of diversity as researchers move up the academic ladder. While women are a plurality of graduate students, they hold only 37% of tenured faculty positions, and in many STEM fields men outnumber women by more than 4 to 1. For underrepresented populations, this gap in STEM fields is closer to 20 to 1. According to a recent report on diversity among UC assistant professors, hiring of underrepresented populations fell behind national averages in STEM and professional fields; for women, UC lagged in nearly all fields examined.

How can we make progress on a more equitable and inclusive university during contract bargaining? UC Berkeley Law Professor Mary Ann Mason has studied the attrition of women researchers in detail for more than 20 years and has identified two principle factors that drive women out of academic science — primarily a lack of family-friendly policies and institutional gender bias.

In her research Dr. Mason identifies family formation as the critical factor that causes women to leave STEM fields and lays out a series of proven recommendations for how to address these issues, including child care assistance and paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers, among others. These recommendations provide a road map for fixing the so-called “broken pipeline” via the bargaining process.

Child care assistance is essential because right now it is nearly impossible for a postdoc to afford childcare. Having a child shouldn’t massively disincentivize a brilliant scientist from doing good work at UC — but right now it does. UC’s own child care centers cost over $2,000 a month for one child, while the average postdoc brings home just $2,900 a month after taxes. And paid parental leave is on the rise in cities and states because it leads to positive outcomes — lower turnover and higher wages for recent mothers among them — and Dr. Mason found that increasing leave time for faculty at Berkeley caused job satisfaction to sharply increase.

Institutional gender bias plays an equally insidious role in driving women out of research. In a recent op-ed, University of Hawaii Geobiology Professor Hope Jahren details how subtle and overt bias, harassment, and assault cause STEM fields at Universities to “shed women the way the trees on campus lose their leaves in the fall”:

The absence of women within STEM programs is not only progressive, it is persistent — despite more than 20 years of programs intended to encourage the participation of girls and women…In the rare case when a female scientist becomes a faculty member, she finds herself invested in the very system that is doing the weeding, and soon recognizes that sexual harassment is one of the sharpest tools in the shed.

The nationwide crisis of campus sexual harassment and assault creates a toxic environment that further contributes to a loss of diversity. The recent spate of high-profile cases involving professors across the UC system have made plain that there is a great deal of work to be done to make the environment at UC safe for all members of the academic community. We have an opportunity to set a model for a fair and just process for protecting survivors and that effectively deters those who would engage in egregious abuses of power.

As a model for increasing faculty diversity, UC’s Presidental Postdoctoral Fellowship Program is an unqualified success. 15–20 fellows from underrepresented groups are accepted each year and supported by resources for training and mentoring. 75 percent have gone on to become professors, with more than half at a UC campus. But larger scale efforts are also needed. By expanding the lessons learned in our next contract, UC would set an example for other institutions to follow.

Additionally, the union and UC can work together to create an environment that encourages ambitious, creative, cutting-edge research. Studies have found that longer appointments for postdocs promotes better research results. While most research projects last several years, currently postdocs at UC almost exclusively receive short one-year appointments, which create anxiety for postdocs and needless administrative bureaucracy for UC. By simplifying the appointment process in a way that supports postdocs, we can invest in better research outcomes.

UC postdocs are eager to address these issues with the University at the bargaining table. Together we can set a precedent for policies that sustain and advance the success and retention of underrepresented researchers. By investing in the budding careers of the next generation of scientists, I’m hopeful that in the future we can look back and say that we have made progress toward building a research enterprise which truly reflects our best and brightest scientific minds.

Anke Schennink is the president of UAW Local 5810, the union for over 6,000 postdocs at the University of California.