One of the interesting aspects of the recent Center for American Progress report, Staying Competitive: Patching America's Leaky Pipeline in the Sciences, is the recommendation that funding agencies and/or universities provide supplementary funds to "offset family event productivity loss". This recommendation is distinct from those about providing family leave benefits to graduate students and researchers. In this specific case, these supplementary funds would go to the principal investigator of a grant that pays the salary of a person having a "family event" and would therefore (in theory) make PIs less reluctant to hire researchers (e.g., women) who might have such an event (e.g., a baby).
Last summer I wrote about some of the issues for PIs re. paying the salary of someone who has a family leave. The new report addresses some of these issues with the recommendation that PIs receive supplementary funding to cover family leave for their researchers.
I like this idea because it might create a more family-friendly environment for early career researchers: students and postdocs and other research scientists, female and male. I like that it attempts to reduce the problem for PIs who, however well-meaning and supportive, may be harmed by a situation in which grant funds are paid to someone who needs a leave of absence and who is therefore not actively working on the grant's research for a while.
But I wonder how this would work. If I am supervising a graduate student or postdoc who is doing research related to a grant of which I am the PI, and that student or postdoc needs to take time off for a "family event" that will reduce or obliterate their ability to do that research, what would I do with supplementary funding?
Despite the dire world economic crisis, there doesn't seem to be a pool of unemployed or part-time scientists with the necessary training such that they could parachute into a project with a few month's notice, keep the project going for a few/6/more months and then hand the research back over to the returning grad or postdoc to pick up exactly where their substitute left off. Even if such highly-qualified and flexible researchers existed, this scenario wouldn't work for many reasons, including the fact that it involves the undesirable situation in which someone is hired to do some of the thesis or postdoctoral research of someone else.
In a few cases, though, it might work, depending on the project and the stage of the project during the leave. I can imagine some situations in which I could pay a graduate student to do some prep work or certain kinds of analyses, thus moving the project along but not complicating the situation.
In many cases, however, if I were handed the equivalent of the salary of a researcher who takes a leave of absence, the best I could do is extend the length of the project so that the work would get done when the researcher returned, just not in the original time frame of the work plan. That wouldn't help if the research involved time-sensitive activities, but it would help other projects, especially if the extension were no more than 3-6 months.
Are there other possibilities?
If you are a PI, how would you use supplemental funding to deal with a temporary suspension of a research project (or part of a project) during a researcher's "family event"?
10 months ago