Family friendliness: NIH is listening!

Jan 21 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

So, NIH is paying attention to what goes on out here in the internet. Sally Rockey, NIH's Deputy Director for Extramural Research, has a new blog called "Rock Talk" (love it, lol) perhaps inspired by NIGMS/Jeremy Berg's blogging legacy (and good to have starting up now that he is moving on from director of NIGMS to a new position at a university--maybe she can become our new source of NIH data crack?). In her first post, she talks about NIH's policies on family leave, setting the context in a way that I am pretty sure means she was inspired to clarify this topic by my post from a couple of weeks ago.

To summarize her clarification, she said that while NIAID might be the only institute that has explicitly announced a program for the family leave-related technical assistance supplements, it is not the only institute that allows grant funds to be used to pay for this kind of technical assistance, nor the only one to grant supplements to hire temporary technical assistance for this purpose. Furthermore, she reiterated that NIH allows childcare costs to be budgeted as a fringe benefit or included as an indirect cost to an award.

If I am interpreting this correctly, means that PIs can request or rebudget funds from NIH grants to cover their own childcare costs or those of their trainees/employees supported on those grants, and also that institutions can include such allocations in their indirect cost calculations (and thus reduce the hit to the directs, which would affect the effective grant budget the PI has to work with). I think the latter would be the best arrangement, since it would reduce the potential disincentive to PIs to having their trainees (or themselves) have children that might be perceived if the childcare costs amount was included as a fringe benefit (since fringe benefits are a direct cost). The possibility of removing that budget-squeezing barrier is phenomenal--it could dramatically affect the equation for grad student RAs, postdocs and junior faculty in particular.

One question I still have is if these policies apply to all grants or just training grants. Since the link about these policies is in the "Training" section of the NIH grants website, it isn't clear if they also apply to R, P, U etc. grants. Also, if such a clarification was issued as an official notice, we might be able to get some purchase with our institutions in shifting their own internal policies on how parental leave and childcare costs are charged. For example, my institution does not allow parental leave to be charged to Federal grants beyond the first two weeks, even though with sick leave and parental leave combined, one can conglomerate up to about 12 weeks total of time off after childbirth. That means my department was responsible for covering the salary costs of me being on maternity leave. Lucky for me, my department head and dean are extremely supportive of this and covered it automatically, unconditionally and without laying any pressure on me about it. But there are many environments, even on my own campus that has a major NSF ADVANCE grant, where that would not have been the case. My institution also does not advertise any policy about covering childcare costs, and I bet if I suggested or asked I would just get some funny looks and shaken heads. Like "Hah, yeah right lady, keep dreamin'".

NIH: you have the power to convince our institutions on this, but methinks you'll need to be a little more proactive--and oh, how we would appreciate it if you would do that! It could be a total game-changer!

7 responses so far

  • neurowoman says:

    I don't understand how your institution can forbid charging parental/sick leave to the Federal grant if the granting entity allows it?

    What I do understand is that since NIH will cover these types of things if it is university policy, it is up to the university/institution to have these policies in place, such as x number of weeks of paid parental leave. The sticky issue becomes that fact that these policies have to be across the board, not just for those paid from federal grants, which means an expense to the university, even if some subset of folks would essentially get it for 'free' (not at a cost to the Uni).

    I have never heard of a university offering actual child care costs as a fringe benefit, only flex accounts (which probably incur some cost in administration and only saves parents the taxes otherwise paid on salary) and possibly on site subsidized child care programs.

  • chemicalbilology says:

    I get you--and indeed, I have never heard of a university offering this as a fringe benefit either, but clearly some do otherwise NIH wouldn't need such a policy. Awareness of the possibility, and NIH backing it up, is the first step towards making it more universal. At the very least, a step towards having an argument for transparency regarding what IDCs are used for subsidized childcare and better ensuring that PIs and their trainees will have access to using that childcare since their IDCs are paying for it.

    In my personal anecdote about my own maternity leave, that 12 weeks that I was able to cobble together is what is available to any benefits-eligible employee, and still the university only let me cover 2 weeks of it out of my grant (with which I normally cover 50% of my salary). My department had to front the rest, even though my grant was technically able to do it.

  • Amanda@LadyScientist says:

    I don't know if this will help many postdocs or grad students, since it's dependent upon the institution having a policy in place. For instance, in my institution postdocs and grad students are not eligible for parental leave and grad students are do not meet the requirements for FMLA. Grad students are only considered 0.33 FTE and FMLA requires that 1,250 hours be worked in the past year. So, a grad student is technically only considered to have worked 660 hours in the past year (even though I'm sure most worked many more hours).

    All this stinks for me personally because I am a postdoc at the institution I went to grad school, but I won't be eligible for FMLA by the time the wee one is born because of the hours worked in the past year issue. And there is no parental leave program in place. So, I'm not quite sure how this is going to play out for me personally.

    • chemicalbilology says:

      See, and this is where the NIH needs to set the standard. I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t require that any person/trainee funded off of an NIH grant be offered some NIH-wide standard of parental leave (whether that trainee was a grad student on an R01 RA position, a grad student with an NIH training grant fellowship, a postdoc on an institutional training grant T32 or individual NRSA or a postdoc funded from an R21 or R01).

      If that made institutions moan and groan about then having to offer that to the rest of the grad students and postdocs who weren’t paid through NIH grants, then GASP!!! oh noes, an institution actually has to sack up and stop being so 19th century about their parental benefits policies!!! Somebody’s gotta give them the push to make that change, and NIH and NSF (who subsidize huge amounts of the universities’ operating costs through IDCs) have the power to do it. So I believe they should.

  • pinus says:

    Has there been any official word on the use of grant funds for child-care? Am I reading this wrong, or can a PI say "I am giving my post-doc who just had a kid 10K a year for daycare"?

  • chemicalbilology says:

    According to Dr. Rockey's response, the NIH has no problem with that as long as the institution does that for all postdocs even those not funded by NIH. In other words, it was a less than satisfactory "pass the buck" back to institutions.

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