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Out of the Way!

When postdocs leave their PIs' labs to start up their own labs, they're usually not allowed to take with them whatever projects they've been working on. But Stanford University School of Medicine professor of neurobiology Ben Barres writes in Nature News that this practice amounts to "postdoc maltreatment." Postdocs are "the engines of scientific progress," Barres argues, and they are owed more than three to seven years or poor pay and then to be wrenched away from the projects they dedicate so much time and energy to.

"This is such a touchy topic that it is only now that I feel comfortable writing about it," Barres writes. "I am at the end of a long academic career and dying of stage four pancreatic cancer. I think it's time for the academic community to start openly discussing the issue of research freedom for postdocs (or lack of it)."

Most PIs have policies on research ownership, he notes. Unfortunately, most postdocs don't ask. Those who do ask find that some PIs outright refuse to let postdocs take their projects with them (with the definition of "project" varying depending on the PI), while other PIs let postdocs retain their work but then directly compete with them. "A postdoc is formally free to work on any project in his or her own lab. But those that spurn their advisers' wishes risk losing their support — something that is usually crucial for winning junior investigator awards and other types of funding, or when trying to obtain a promotion, say from assistant to associate professor," Barres adds.

And asking a postdoc to begin all over again on new research is not only insulting to the postdoc as it assumes that the PI deserves all ownership over previous work, but it also hamstrings postdocs from obtaining funding or faculty positions by preventing them from being able to show preliminary data that they could use to show progress in their field.

Such clashes also harm science, Barres says. "It is well known among senior investigators that mentors who are ungenerous to their trainees have a lower rate of trainee success, and their area of research suffers as a result," he notes. 

Barres advises graduate students who hope to one day have their own labs to very carefully select their postdoctoral mentor. "The best mentors serve as strong role models when it comes to doing creative and rigorous science. They are also highly generous people who are willing to give their postdocs academic freedom, the long hours needed to teach them how to design good experiments, and continued support long after their trainees have left, for instance by providing recommendation letters or advice," he says.

He also adds that the topic of research ownership should be included in ethics courses, such as those now mandated by the NIH graduate training grants, and that funding agencies worldwide should do more to ensure postdoc welfare. 

"Right now, PIs wishing to take advantage of their postdocs can act with impunity. In this increasingly competitive world, where it is harder than ever for young scientists to get off to a good start in their own laboratories, it is incumbent upon us as a community to ensure that those to whom we hand the baton are treated equitably," Barres concludes.