Letter from APS leadership

Relieving Economic Strain to Enhance American Resilience & Competitiveness in Higher Education & Research (RESEARCHER) Act

October 13, 2023

The Honorable Jennifer McClellan
US House of Representatives
2417 Rayburn HOB
Washington, DC 20515-4604

The Honorable Raúl Grijalva
US House of Representatives
1203 Longworth HOB
Washington, DC 20515-0307

Dear Representatives McClellan and Grijalva:

On behalf of the American Physical Society (APS) – the largest physics membership organization in the United States with more than 50,000 members in academia, national labs, and the private sector – I would like to thank you and your cosponsors for introducing H.R. 4002, the Relieving Economic Strain to Enhance American Resilience & Competitiveness in Higher Education & Research (RESEARCHER) Act. This bill is an important first step toward understanding and addressing the financial strain facing many graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. These individuals are a vital part of the US scientific community, carrying out much of the daily activities in research labs and lecture halls across the country.

The current status quo pits fair wages against the country’s STEM workforce needs. Inadequate grad student and postdoc compensation is partly a symptom of resource constraints and policies at federal science agencies. Nearly all fundamental research conducted in the United States is supported by federal funding in the form of individual grants to principal investigators (PIs, e.g., university professors). These grants are primarily used to pay for researcher and student salaries, as well as laboratory equipment and supplies. However, the funding pools for research grants are often heavily oversubscribed, resulting in PIs scrambling to balance lab needs with sustainable support for their students and postdocs over the course of their degree or contract. Thus, any growth in financial compensation without increased federal science funding increases the pressure on limited grant funds, translating to fewer student and postdoc researcher positions and diminished research output.

At a time when our competitors are increasingly investing in their scientific workforce, a sustainable solution must be found. While a graduate degree includes coursework, grad students are also workers, carrying out their own research, supporting their labs, mentoring more junior students, and assisting with or outright teaching undergraduate courses. Financial compensation — typically in the form of research or teaching stipends — is low, falling below living wage levels for many, and at times resulting in housing and food insecurity1. After graduation, graduates who pursue postdoc researcher positions in academia often continue to receive wages below market value for an advanced STEM degree-holder2. Graduate students and postdocs facing financial stress are less likely to thrive in research, and less optimistic about career prospects3. This financial instability is particularly concerning for STEM diversity goals, as preliminary surveys indicate that students from underrepresented or low-income backgrounds and those with dependents find these conditions especially challenging4.

To maintain our competitiveness, we must ensure that our grad students and postdocs are fairly compensated for their efforts while also maintaining our research output. Increasing compensation without simultaneously increasing appropriations for the federal science agencies will necessarily result in fewer student and postdoc researcher positions and decreased research output. Thus, any change to grad student and postdoc compensation must be matched by a commensurate change in policy and funding for the federal science agencies. The RESEARCHER Act will help address fair compensation issues by authorizing data collection and directing the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to establish uniform guidelines for federal science agencies. The federal research agencies will then be required to develop and implement policies based on OSTP’s guidance, and the agencies must have the necessary appropriations to do so.

By beginning to address financial precarity, students and postdocs will be able to pursue meaningful and impactful research careers without potentially sacrificing their — or their families’ — economic well-being. Investment in these researchers is imperative to the health and diversity of the US scientific workforce, and to our competitiveness on the global stage. The RESEARCHER Act is a necessary step to provide sustainability to grad students and postdoc researchers, but without sufficient appropriations, it will lead to a reduction in research output as well as reduced numbers of students and postdocs being able to pursue STEM careers.

Thank you for your efforts on this bill. We look forward to working with you on this important issue. If you have questions or would like to further discuss this issue, do not hesitate to contact APS Director of Public Affairs Mark Elsesser (elsesser@aps.org; 202.846.8121).


Robert Rosner

PresidentAmerican Physical Society


More information

  1. ga@aps.org

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