In an effort to promote collaboration and the number of U.S. scientists in Europe, a joint venture between the U.S. NSF and Europe’s ERC was finalized earlier this month at the Euroscience Open Forum when NSF Director Subra Suresh and European commissioner for research and innovation Máire Geoghegan-Quinn signed the agreement. The deal allows for selected early career scientists funded by the NSF CAREER awards to spend 3-12 months in labs funded by the ERC. While at first glance this seems like a good way to accomplish their goals, the funding might better be directed towards scientists still in the postdoctoral role. In an era when scientific funding is scarce and the average age for a scientist to receive their first grant as a PI is in their 40s, it is imperative that early-career scientists remain in their own lab to establish themselves, their lab, and their careers. A new PI does not have the luxury of leaving their lab without leadership and an established crew. Their lab needs oversight and leadership to be productive and pump out papers so that they can obtain more funding and have a successful career.
A better idea is to target postdocs as tools to increase worldwide scientific collaboration. Postdocs are often more available and willing to move to a different country/lab where they can learn new techniques and establish connections with future collaborators, provided that it will help them further their careers as scientists. However, the current situation for the U.S. postdoc abroad is dismal. While it should open new doors and promote future collaborations, there is very little funding for postdocs to explore these options and it is harder still to return to the U.S. and obtain a PI postition, mainly because of the difficulty in getting your first independent funding. One thing that makes it easier to get your first independent funding is to establish yourself as a fundable postdoc, which must almost exclusively be done within the borders of the U.S. It is a vicious cycle that makes it almost impossible to remain in academics for those that try. If today’s scientific leaders and policy makers truly want worldwide collaboration, they should aim more of their efforts at postdoctoral scientists and reward those that have spent time honing their skills abroad.