Update 12/7/2016: (first follow up here, second follow up here)
I have generally steered well clear of the issue of postdoc pay, which engenders pretty heated conversations that I'm SO not interested in getting into publicly, but one thing I'm seeing is really bugging me these days: people bragging on Twitter about how much they pay their postdocs above the NIH minimum. Like this:
I don't mean to single these folks out—it just happened that I saw these tweets most recently—but I've seen a few such statements over the last year or so since the announcement that the mimimum for salaried workers would be increased to ~$48K or so (which was just recently reversed).
Why is this irritating? Well, first of all, in this funding climate, and given many labs that have to make many tough choices, it does strike me as a bit arrogant to talk about how much more you can afford to pay than many, many other very well-intentioned scientists. The implication is that people who don't pay as much as you do are paying an abusively low amount, which is I think an unfair charge. For these reasons (and maybe a few others), I just don't think it's really appropriate to publicly talk about how much you pay your people. For the record, I support paying postdocs well, and I think the increase is overall a good idea. My point here will be that there is not an obvious default "right" position on the issue of postdoc pay, and I think it is far more complex than just saying "We should pay postdocs a decent wage."
Indeed, I think the key difficulty is pinning down exactly what we mean by the notion of "decent wage". For instance, in the first tweet above, the PI is from Cambridge/Boston, and the second is from NYC. Now, the proposed federal regulation for starting postdocs is (was) $47,484, and that would apply everywhere. Including, say, Ann Arbor, Michigan (which I choose for no particular reason other than it's home to a major, world-class research institution, but in a relatively affordable location). Now, comparing the cost of living of any two places is tricky, but I found this estimate that Boston is roughly 1.4x as pricey as Ann Arbor (which sounds probably about right). Bragging about paying $60K? Well, shouldn't that be $66K? Live in Cambridge MA instead? No better, $76K. So let's stop crowing about how "decently" the Broad Institute pays, okay?
So, is $60K "fair"? Hmm. From the PI perspective: a Boston PI could say, well my dollars don't go as far, so in a way, doesn't the Michigan PI have an unfair advantage? Then again, the Michigan PI could say hey, why do I have to pay more (relatively speaking) for my postdocs? Why does the Boston PI not have to pay the same effective wages I do? Why should they not have an enforced effective minimum standard pay and have the freedom to pay effectively less?
The motivation of PIs may also matter here as well. The focus in the discussion has been on PIs taking advantage of cheap labor, and that definitely happens. But some PIs may define their mission as training as many scientists as possible, which certainly seems reasonable to me, at least from one point of view. (And I do wonder how often those who brag about paying so much above the minimum have actually had to make the tough choice of turning away a talented postdoc candidate due to constrained funding.)
From the NIH perspective: what is the goal? To get as much science as "efficiently" as possible? To train people? To create a stable scientific workforce? Or to better human health? Should the NIH even allow people in high cost of living areas to pay their postdocs more? Would it be fair to consider this pay scale in grant review, just as other areas of budgets are scrutinized? Does increasing the minimum penalize those who pay the minimum in non-Boston/SF locations unfairly, thus increasing inequity? Or does it provide a general boost for those places, now making them more attractive because their NIH minimum dollars go further? Should the NIH scale the size of grant by cost of living in the area of the host institution? To what extent should the NIH support diversity of locations, anyway?
From the trainee perspective: It's pretty easy for trainees to say that whatever they're paid right now is not fair (though you might be surprised how little many assistant professors make). So for trainees reading this post, let me ask: what would be fair? Okay, maybe now you have a number in your head. Where does that number come from? Is it based on need? Consider: should a postdoc who has a family be paid more? Wait a minute, what about the postdoc without a family? What about immigrants with expensive visa costs? Or potentially families to support in their home country? Moving costs? Commuting costs? Should postdocs be paid more when the institution is in an expensive city? Should postdocs be forced to live further away from the institute to seek more affordable housing? My point is that there is no clear line between necessity and luxury, and wherever that blurry line does get drawn will be highly dependent on a trainee's circumstances and choices.
Or should that number be based on performance? Should the postdoc entering the lab with a flashy paper or two be paid more than the one without? Should a postdoc get a raise every time they publish a paper, scaled by how important the paper is? How many grants it generates? I think it's reasonable to assume that such an environment would be toxic within a lab, but wouldn't the same be true of pay based on personal circumstance, as just discussed above? And isn't such performance-based pay already what's sort of happening at a more global level in flush institutes where PIs can get enough grants to pay well above the minimum?
As you have probably noticed, this post has way more question marks than periods, and I don't claim to know the answers to any of these questions. I have thoughts, like everyone else, and I'm happy to talk about them in person, where nuance and human connection tend to breed more consensus than discord. My point is that reducing all this to a single number is sort of ridiculous, but that's how it works, and so that's what we all have to start from, along with various institutional prerogatives. In the meantime, given how simplistic it is to reduce this discussion to a single number, can we please stop with the public postdoc pay-shaming?