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Classification & Qualifications Appeal Decisions

Washington, DC

U.S. Office of Personnel Management
Classification Appeal Decision
Under section 5112 of title 5, United States Code

Yolanda L. Jones
Biologist
GS-401-12
Division of Applied Veterinary Research
Office of Research
Center for Veterinary Medicine
Food and Drug Administration
Bethesda, Maryland
GS-401-12,
(Title at agency discretion)
C-0401-12-04

Robert D. Hendler
Classification and Pay Claims
Program Manager
Agency Compliance and Evaluation
Merit System Accountability and Compliance

10/20/2014


Date

As provided in section 511.612 of title 5, Code of Federal Regulations, this decision constitutes a certificate that is mandatory and binding on all administrative, certifying, payroll, disbursing, and accounting officials of the Government.  The agency is responsible for reviewing its classification decisions for identical, similar, or related positions to ensure consistency with this decision.  There is no right of further appeal.  This decision is subject to discretionary review only under conditions and time limits specified in the Introduction to the Position Classification Standards (Introduction), appendix 4, section G (address provided in appendix 4, section H).

Introduction

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) Merit System Accountability and Compliance accepted this position classification appeal on March 6, 2014.  The appellant occupies the position of Biologist, GS-401-12, in the Division of Applied Veterinary Research, Office of Research, Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Bethesda, Maryland.  She requests reclassification of her position as Research Biologist, GS-401-13.  We received the agency administrative report (AAR) on May 8, 2014, and the appellant's response to the AAR on May 15, 2014.  We accepted and decided this appeal under the provisions of section 5112 of title 5, United States Code (U.S.C.).

General Issues

In her appeal, the appellant contests the manner in which her agency handled the classification review of her position, which included three separate desk audits (two internal and one external to FDA).  In adjudicating this appeal, our responsibility is to make an independent decision on the proper classification of the appellant's position.  By law, we must make that decision solely by comparing her current duties and responsibilities to OPM standards and guidelines (5 U.S.C. 5106, 5107, and 5112).  Because our decision sets aside all previous agency decisions, the appellant's concerns regarding her agency’s classification review process and the manner in which management responded to the process are not germane to this decision.

The appellant bases her appeal in large part on her assertion that she is “performing study director duties, just like all other GS-13s,” thus equating her position to other positions in the agency as a basis for her appeal.  However, by law, we must classify positions solely by comparing their current duties and responsibilities to OPM standards and guidelines (5 U.S.C. 5106, 5107, and 5112).  Since comparison to standards is the exclusive method for classifying positions, we cannot compare the appellant’s position to others that may or may not have been properly classified as a basis for deciding her appeal.  The appellant’s position must be evaluated on its own merits rather than in relation to other positions.

The appellant associates the role of “study director” as it is defined within the agency with a specific grade level.  As explained above, positions are classified by comparing their current duties and responsibilities to OPM standards and guidelines.  Thus, the grade of any work that involves planning and conducting studies is dependent on the difficulty, complexity, and breadth of the studies themselves when compared to the appropriate OPM classification standard. 

Position information

The primary purpose of the appellant's position is to serve as a support scientist in providing assistance in the planning and execution of research studies to evaluate the pharmacological and/or toxicological properties of veterinary drugs in both target animals and biological model systems, and in providing assistance to other studies related to regulatory issues under agency purview.  This includes participating in study development by researching the scientific literature for information on methodology pertinent to the problems under investigation and incorporating these into the study protocol; operating a wide range of laboratory equipment to process and analyze samples, perform assays, and make observations; managing the analytical aspects of the study to include compiling and validating data; and assisting in writing interim and final reports and manuscripts for publication. 

In addition to these support scientist duties, over the course of the past few years the appellant was given the opportunity to conduct four studies in the capacity of what the agency refers to as "study director."  This is an organizational title signifying independent responsibility for the conception and execution of the approved studies, including technical conduct of the study, analysis and interpretation of data, documentation of the study, and reporting results in interim and final reports, peer reviewed journals, and/or Laboratory Information Bulletins (LIBs).  The appellant's four studies all involved cellular and molecular analysis such as extracting DNA or RNA from blood or tissue samples for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) analysis and/or DNA sequencing, primarily as a means of performing species identification for Federal regulatory purposes.

The appellant does not contest the accuracy of the duties listed in her position description (PD #F00738), which is basically accurate and adequate for classification purposes.  However, she takes exception to an addendum which was added as a consequence of the second desk audit.  This addendum states:  “The Principal Investigator (PI) may designate Support Scientists to assist in certain routine Study Director duties over specific studies that are within the functional area of the Division.  In this capacity the incumbent follows the direction of the PI and all required regulations, policies, protocols and Standard Operating Procedures, as necessary.  The PI is the point of contact for the study control pertaining to technical issues, data analysis and interpretation, documentation and reporting results.”  The appellant disputes that the PI has “managerial control” over her work and asserts that her “projects are independent and not affiliated with any PI.”

This addendum was instigated by management's reconsideration of their previous practice in allowing support scientists to function as study directors and was appended to the PDs of all support scientists in the Office of Research.  It is our understanding its intent is to establish the controls under which support scientists are to operate in any future study director assignments.  Therefore, it has no bearing on our consideration of how the appellant has operated in conducting her four studies currently underway or nearing completion. 

To help decide this appeal, we conducted a desk audit with the appellant on July 17, 2014, and telephone interviews with her team leader on August 29, 2014, her first-level supervisor on September 24, 2014, and her second-level supervisor on October 1, 2014.  This decision is based on our assessment of the appellant’s duties and responsibilities as determined through our desk audit, review of work samples and other documents furnished by the appellant, detailed descriptions of her work contained in the appeal record, and all other material received in the AAR.  

Series and title determination

The appellant's position is correctly assigned to the GS-401 General Natural Resources Management and Biological Sciences Series.  Neither the appellant nor the agency disagrees.  The GS-400 Job Family Standard (JFS) for Professional Work in the Natural Resources and Biological Sciences Group instructs that for this series, agencies may use any position title that describes the work of the position, as long as it has not been prescribed for another series.  The agency's assignment of the title "Biologist" meets this criterion. 

The appellant requests that the title of her position be prefixed as "Research."  She bases this on her assertion that she serves as a "study director" and that within FDA, "[a] Research Biologist (GS-401-13) is a study director and is responsible for research projects from cultivation through completion."  However, the GS-400 JFS instructs that this prefix be added when the work of the position satisfies the criteria for research as defined in the Research Grade Evaluation Guide (RGEG).  The term “study director” is an organizational title used within the appellant’s agency but not used within the RGEG.  Thus, whether the appellant is designated as a "study director" or whether she functions as a “study director” as that term is applied within her agency are not germane to determining whether her position can be considered and evaluated as a research position.  Rather, this is dependent on whether the studies themselves constitute “research” within the context of the RGEG and whether she exercises independent responsibility for any such research performed. 

The appellant also presents as support for titling her position as "Research" her recent placement on the selection certificate for an advertised "Research Biologist" position in the agency.  She asserts the reason she was considered qualified for the position was "because the duties required for the position are of a GS-13 Research scientist," thus supporting her contention that she has "already functioned at this level for at least the last 4 years." First, although the appellant did not provide a copy of the vacancy announcement for the advertised position, merit promotion procedures generally require one year of experience at the next lower grade level.  Therefore, the appellant's rated qualification for the GS-13 position does not mean that her experience had been assessed at the GS-13 level.  Second, any determination that the appellant had prior independent research experience would have been based on the self-description of work on her resume and her responses to the assessment questionnaire.  It does not represent a classification determination based on review of the actual work she has performed and whether that work met the criteria for "research" as defined in the RGEG. 

The RGEG applies to work in professional scientific and engineering positions that satisfies both the definition of research and research responsibility as described below.  The RGEG instructs that if the definition of either research or research responsibility is not satisfied, the standard or guide applicable to the position’s series, rather than the RGEG, must be used to evaluate the position. 

Research - Research is systematic, critical, intensive investigation directed toward discovering, disseminating, and applying new or expanded knowledge in a professional discipline.  Research includes, but is not limited to, empirical and theoretical investigations with one or more of the following objectives:

  • to determine the nature, magnitude, and interrelationships of physical, biological, psychological, social, and other comparable phenomena and processes;
  • to create or develop empirical, theoretical, or experimental means of investigating such phenomena and processes; or
  • to develop principles, criteria, methods, and data of general applicability.

Research Responsibility - Professionals engaged in research work have one or both of the following responsibilities:

  • personally performing professionally responsible research for a substantial portion of time; or
  • directly and personally leading and participating in the activities of a research team and/or organizational unit (when the primary basis for selection for the position is competence and capability in performing professionally responsible research rather than capability in supervising and managing a research organization).

Professionally responsible research meets the following criteria:

  • involves applying scientific methods, including exploring and defining problems, planning the approach for study, analyzing data, interpreting results, and documenting or reporting findings;
  • requires creativity and critical judgment, which may materially affect the  nature of the end product;
  • requires research capability attainable through graduate education or demonstrated research experience;
  • is performed at a level of responsibility typically associated with independent research investigation; and
  • the researcher’s contributions, stature, and recognition have a direct and major impact on the level of difficulty and responsibility of the research.

Additionally, the RGEG instructs that when assessing whether a position should be evaluated using the RGEG, one must also consider the purpose of the work as determined by assignments over time, qualifications required, management intent, and the organization’s mission.

The applicability of the RGEG to the four studies the appellant has carried out is addressed below:

Study number 327.41 - A major way to prevent the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy is to prohibit ruminant proteins from being used in ruminant feed.  The FDA has developed a peer verified method of detecting ruminant protein in feed through the use of unique primers (short strands of nucleic acid that serve as the starting point for amplifying and identifying a specific DNA fragment).  The goal of this study was to create a working SOP for the mass production of primers and positive controls for the six FDA laboratories and 14 State laboratories currently using the peer verified method.  The design and procedures involve diluting the primers from their stock concentrations and, once the initial sets of diluted primers have been prepared, shipping them to the laboratories, and keeping a log of the laboratories that received the primers and the date and amount sent.  This work will continue until finalization of a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) for the commercialization of the primers.

This study, which was initiated in 2008 and is still ongoing, does not meet the basic criteria for research as defined in the RGEG.  It involves the mass production of primers, which are ordered in concentrated powdered form from a private DNA manufacturing firm, by diluting the stock concentrations, conducting a quality control check to ensure the dilution is correct, and shipping the products to the requesting laboratories.  This work does not involve the conduct of empirical and theoretical investigations to determine the nature, magnitude, and interrelationships of physical or biological phenomena and processes; to create or develop empirical, theoretical, or experimental means of investigating such phenomena and processes; or to develop principles, criteria, methods, and data of general applicability.  In other words, there is no basic research question being investigated through systematic experimentation or new methods of general applicability being developed.  Rather, the appellant is carrying out a routinized production operation through execution of repetitive and prescribed processes.

Study number 414.06 - The goal of this study was to develop a rapid molecular assay specific to the detection of mouse, rat, or insect contaminants in food processing and storage facilities using the same equipment and approach that CVM has developed for species identification to detect animal material in food and feed.  The design and procedures involved extracting DNA from the animal tissues and performing species-specific detection using established assays but optimizing the manufacturer's protocol; labelling, purifying, and hybridizing the DNA for optimization; and using existing DNA barcodes and/or creating new DNA barcode sequences.  The results of the study were published in the Journal of Food Protection (accepted September 2012) under the article “Potential Use of DNA Barcodes in Regulatory Science: Identification of the FDA’s ‘Dirty 22,’ Contributors to the Spread of Foodborne Pathogens.”

This study, which was initiated in 2008 and completed in 2012, does not meet the basic criteria for research as defined in the RGEG.  FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA) requested that the appellant’s laboratory develop a DNA-based identification method to detect the presence of 22 common pest contaminants which get into food during processing or storage that would be more effective than traditional microscopy.  The appellant, by reading other published research articles, found that a particular cross-species gene which could be used to identify these species had been isolated.  The appellant used existing primers and established methods of PCR amplification and sequencing that resulted in the successful generation of DNA barcodes for the 22 species based on this specific gene sequence.  These barcodes can hypothetically be used for regulatory applications to conduct species identification.  This was the first attempt to develop a sequence-based regulatory database and primer strategy to identify the targeted species.  However, the appellant's above-cited journal article notes that “[a]lthough the idea of using DNA sequence analyses is not new, the standardization of analysis of sequence diversity in a single gene region for the recognition of species in large groups is new,” citing another researcher's journal article.  Thus, the appellant neither isolated the cross-species gene to which the primers were applied nor originated the concept of species identification based on a common targeted gene sequence.  Rather, she used these methodologies developed by others and applied them to a specific application.  Although this work involved the development of an individualized method for detecting the targeted species, the method is specific to this particular application and cannot be construed as being of general applicability as required by the RGEG (as would, for example, the earlier work originating the cross-species genetic methodology of species identification upon which this study was based).  

Study number 414.19 - FDA currently only has the ability to identify what species are not in a sample, based on the limited animal-specific primers they have.  With recent regulatory requests from FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) and ORA, the appellant determined there was a need to expand the animal species in FDA’s DNA barcode database, which is currently limited to fish speciation.  The goal of this study is to expand the database to include various vertebrate species to assist in identifying "unknown" species samples.  The design and procedures involve DNA extraction, PCR, and DNA sequencing to create DNA barcodes for various species of regulatory interest.

This study, which was initiated in 2011 and is still in the early development stages, does not meet the basic criteria for research as defined in the RGEG.  The appellant has obtained tissue or blood samples for almost a hundred known species from various museums and zoos and performed DNA sequencing, then verified the results using a common DNA barcoding software called Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD).  The work does not involve the conduct of empirical and theoretical investigations to determine the nature, magnitude, and interrelationships of physical or biological phenomena and processes; to create or develop empirical, theoretical, or experimental means of investigating such phenomena and processes; or to develop principles, criteria, methods, and data of general applicability.  In other words, there is no basic research question being investigated through systematic experimentation or new methods of general applicability being developed.  It involves applying the same established processes repetitively to develop DNA barcodes for different species for an eventual database that could be used for regulatory purposes requiring species identification. 

Study number 414.20 - The goal of this study was to conduct a retail survey of pet food to determine if the species content identification on the label was correct.  The design and procedures involved DNA extraction and analysis using available species-specific primers to identify mammalian samples in the pet food. 

This study, which was initiated in 2012 and completed in 2013, does not meet the basic criteria for research as defined in the RGEG.  It involved testing products to determine their species content.  This was classic regulatory-based product testing and did not involve the conduct of empirical and theoretical investigations to determine the nature, magnitude, and interrelationships of physical or biological phenomena and processes, or to create or develop empirical, theoretical, or experimental means of investigating such phenomena and processes.  It did not involve the development of principles, criteria, methods, and data of general applicability, as documented in the Study Protocol which specifically states the samples would be analyzed by methods previously developed by CVM using DNA extraction and analysis methods described in CVM Laboratory Information Bulletins (LIBs) and using available species-specific primers. 

Thus, the above studies do not constitute “research” as that term is defined in the RGEG.  In terms of “research responsibility,” any qualifying research (i.e., as that term is defined in the RGEG) in which the appellant participates is in the capacity as support scientist.  She submitted a number of published journal articles for research in which she participated and was credited with second or third authorship.  However, this does not meet the definition of “research responsibility” as that term is defined in the RGEG because it does not involve personally performing professionally responsible research at a level of responsibility typically associated with independent research investigation.  Her role in these research projects, which were conceived and overseen by the primary investigators, was to perform such support work as taking samples, validating assays, and preparing reports. Thus, she does not perform independent research for a “substantial portion of time” as required by the RGEG or, more to the point, for any portion of her time.  The primary purpose of her position and management’s intent regarding its establishment and continuing operation is to provide support scientist services, not to perform independent research.

Thus, since the appellant's position does not satisfy the criteria for research as defined in the RGEG, its title may not be prefixed as "Research."  

Standard determination

Since the appellant does not perform research as defined in the RGEG, that guide may not be used for grading purposes.  Therefore, the appellant’s position, including both her support scientist duties and her work related to planning and conducting the aforementioned studies, is properly evaluated by application of the GS-400 JFS.  This standard provides criteria for work similar to that performed by the appellant; i.e., "research and development, regulatory activities, testing and analysis of laboratory samples, or a combination of all of these activities."  This may include such research-related work as "analyzing the structure and function of cells and tissues" and "identifying species based on anatomy, physiology, and behavior," and regulatory work involving "conducting studies to support regulatory decisions" such as "testing samples of food products, drugs, air, or water for purity, potency, and safety" and conducting "difficult analyses or test protocols and communicating test results through reports or live testimony in court." 

Grade determination

The GS-400 JFS is written in the Factor Evaluation System (FES) format, under which factor levels and accompanying point values are to be assigned for each of the following nine factors, with the total then being converted to a grade level by use of the grade conversion table provided in the standard.  The factor point values mark the lower end of the ranges for the indicated factor levels.  For a position to warrant a given point value, it must be fully equivalent to the overall intent of the selected factor-level description.  If the position fails in any significant aspect to meet a particular factor-level description, the point value for the next lower factor level must be assigned, unless the deficiency is balanced by an equally important aspect that meets a higher level.

The JFS also includes illustrations of work typifying some of the factor levels within various covered occupational series, which are cited below as appropriate.  Although these illustrations do not describe work identical to that performed by the appellant, the basic distinguishing features of the factor levels are applicable to her position. 

Factor 1, Knowledge Required by the Position

This factor measures the nature and extent of information an employee must understand to do acceptable work, and the nature and extent of the skills necessary to apply that knowledge. 

The knowledge required by the appellant's position meets Level 1-7.  At this level, the work requires knowledge of and skill in applying a wide range of concepts, principles, practices, and methodology of the field; agency regulations, policies, and procedures; and applicable Federal statutes and legislation.  Relevant to the appellant's position, this knowledge must be sufficient to perform complex tests and/or procedures that require using highly specialized methods or techniques; recognize and identify unusual occurrences or investigative outcomes; modify or adapt established protocols and procedures in response to test or study findings; plan studies that require making significant departures from previous approaches; review standard methods to improve or extend test and study systems; and prepare and present scientific and technical reports. 

Illustrations of Level 1-7 knowledge requirements provided in the JFS include an entomologist who performs complex pest identification and risk analyses and prepares scientific reports for publication; and a soil scientist who conducts investigations and soil mapping, evaluates the results of a broad range of laboratory chemical and physical tests of soil and water, gathers and integrates data on soil characteristics, and performs soil classification and correlation.

As at this level, the appellant performs complex tests and procedures using highly specialized methods and techniques, such as DNA extraction, PCR, and DNA sequencing, to support research efforts and in response to regulatory requests.  The work often involves modifying established methodology to obtain the desired results.  (Examples gleaned from her studies include modifying protocols when using processed meat as a DNA source to eliminate additives; identifying and testing primers that can be used with fragmented DNA sequences; and doing multiple DNA extractions from different insect body parts to negate the effects of PCR inhibition due to high levels of formic acid in particular species.)  Her work is broadly analogous to the above Level 1-7 illustrations in that it involves performing complex analyses and assays, evaluating the data, and reporting the results in journal articles or LIBs. 

Level 1-8 is not met.  At this level, the work requires mastery of and skill in applying advanced theories, principles, concepts, practices, standards, and methodology sufficient to design projects that represent a major segment of the agency’s operating programs; perform assignments that involve initiating, formulating, planning, and executing major studies or continuing specialized projects; use findings of specialized studies, new analytical developments, and modified processes to resolve novel, obscure, or highly controversial problems; provide significant and innovative recommendations for advancing programs and/or methods; and serve as a recognized authority in a specialized area or program. 

Illustrations of Level 1-8 knowledge requirements provided in the JFS include an ecologist who serves as a recognized scientific expert in wetland plants and plant-soil relationships including planning and executing significant wetland classification, inventory, monitoring, and assessments and develops program criteria to establish accurate and consistent classification of wetland communities; a soil conservationist who serves as the agency’s expert on the Soil Taxonomy Program and the national Cooperative Soil Survey and provides leadership that results in broad and substantial acceptance of the Soil Taxonomy as a soil classification system; a fish biologist who provides technical leadership on aquatic toxicity, plans, conducts, and leads other scientists in large surveys of water bodies to determine the presence of toxic conditions, and analyzes and evaluates a wide variety of biological, physical, and chemical data related to water quality; and a wildlife refuge management specialist who serves as a recognized authority for a full range of significant scientific and non-scientific refuge issues.

The distinctions between Levels 1-7 and 1-8 relate to two considerations: the degree of the employee’s expertise, and the complexity and breadth of the work to which that expertise is applied.  In regard to the former, at Level 1-7 the employee has skill in a wide range of methodologies common to the field whereas at Level 1-8, the employee has mastery of more advanced methodologies and serves as a recognized authority in a specialized area.  In regard to the latter, at Level 1-7 the employee plans and carries out studies that involve performing complex tests or procedures using highly specialized techniques, modifying protocols and methodologies based on outcomes, and preparing scientific reports of findings.  At Level 1-8 the employee similarly plans, designs, and conducts projects or studies, but the studies are of much greater scope and are designed to address significant agency problems.

The appellant has highly developed skill in applying the methodologies of DNA extraction, PCR, and DNA sequencing. However, these are specialized but established methodologies common to the field of molecular biology and most particularly for application to species identification, consistent with what would be expected at Level 1-7.  The appellant works on the molecular biology team, which is one of three teams within the Division of Applied Veterinary Research, which in turn is one of three divisions within the CVM's Office of Research.  Within this organizational context, the projects to which these methodologies are applied cannot be construed as representing “a major segment of the agency’s operating programs.”  The four “studies” which the appellant can be said to have formulated, planned, and executed cannot be considered “major” projects within the context of Level 1-8.  They involved carrying out a manufacturing process (327.41); testing products to determine if the content matched the labelling (414.20); conducting DNA barcoding for a projected database (414.19); and developing an assay to detect food contamination (414.06), all of which provide hypothetically useful services or products but have not been demonstrated as resolving novel, obscure, or highly controversial problems.  For example, the appellant reported that the agency did not allow her to publish the results of the pet food testing study; the projected database is in the development stage and the methodology has not yet been validated; and since PCR has not been authenticated from a legal standpoint, the food contamination assay methodology has not been transferred to or adopted by ORA for application.  As was addressed in our earlier discussion of these studies, the work did not involve the development of innovative methodologies analogous to providing “significant and innovative recommendations for advancing programs and/or methods,”  but rather represent taking established processes that are commercially available and applying them to different types of samples.

There is no indication the appellant is regarded as a technical authority in her specialized field.  The term “authority” as used at Level 1-8 is not synonymous with the term “expert.”  The appellant has developed some degree of expertise in the application of certain established methodologies.  However, the term “authority” includes the concept that the results of the work provide the foundation or parameters of the work of others in the field, either officially through delegation or unofficially through recognition and stature.  Although the appellant has made the results of her work available to others in the agency through, for example, LIBs, she is not given the authority to determine how others will carry out their work in the sense of providing technical leadership.  Her studies are self-contained and have no direct impact on the activities of other scientists.  They are designed to provide information or methodologies to support regulatory needs but are not of the scope or impact of those expected at Level 1-8.  The appellant does not exercise the degree of internal technical leadership which is the common element of the various Level 1-8 illustrations cited above. 

The appellant points to her invitations to scientific conferences and to serve as journal reviewer as evidence of her recognized expertise in her field.  It cannot be determined from the written record the degree to which these invitations may derive from her own stature as opposed to her association with other scientists with whom she works.  Regardless, this is not a factor in the evaluation of her position.  Research positions are graded based not only on the complexity, independence, and originality inherent in the research assignment but also in part on the personal contributions, impact, and stature of the scientist.  Invitations to address scientific conferences, chair committees or symposia, submit papers to journals, and other such recognitions serve as     measures of stature and thus are directly considered in applying the RGEG.  However, non-research positions are graded exclusively on the difficulty, complexity, scope, and responsibility of the work performed.  Although non-research scientists may engage in many of the same external activities as research scientists, such as attending and presenting at conferences, contributing chapters to books, and submitting articles for journal publication, such interactions with the larger professional community do not in themselves impact the grade of a non-research position. 

Level 1-7 is credited (1250 points).

Factor 2, Supervisory Controls

This factor covers the nature and extent of direct or indirect controls exercised by the supervisor, the employee’s responsibility, and the review of completed work.

The level of responsibility under which the appellant works meets Level 2-4.  At this level, the supervisor outlines overall objectives and available resources.  The employee and supervisor, in consultation, discuss timeframes and scope of the assignment.  The employee plans and carries out the work, resolving most conflicts that arise and coordinating with others as necessary, interprets policy and regulatory requirements, develops changes to plans and/or methodology, and keeps the supervisor informed of progress and potential controversies.  Completed work is reviewed for soundness of overall approach, effectiveness in meeting requirements or producing expected results, feasibility of recommendations, and adherence to requirements.  Methods used are not usually reviewed.

This level fully expresses the level of supervision the appellant receives both in her role as support scientist and in the conduct of her studies.

Level 2-5 is not met.  At this level, the supervisor provides administrative and policy direction in terms of broadly defined missions or functions of the agency.  The employee defines objectives, interprets policies promulgated by authorities senior to the immediate supervisor and determines their effect on program needs; independently plans, designs, and carries out the work to be done; and serves as a technical authority.  The supervisor reviews the work for potential impact on broad agency policy objectives and program goals, and normally accepts the work without significant change and as being technically authoritative. 

Factor 2 is designed to measure not just the extent of supervision under which the employee works but also the degree of responsibility exercised by the employee.  Within this context, Level 2-5 describes not just an absence of technical supervision but also significant responsibility for independently determining broad mission or program needs, designing the work to be carried out to fulfill those needs, and exercising the technical authority to direct the execution of that work.  The appellant does not have the degree of responsibility or authority required at this level. In relation to her studies, the work is narrowly defined, does not impact broad agency policies and programs, and is not considered technically authoritative in the sense of setting the parameters or standards for similar work being conducted by others.

Level 2-4 is credited (450 points).

Factor 3, Guidelines

This factor covers the nature of the guidelines used and the judgment needed to apply them.

The guidelines used by the appellant meet Level 3-4.  At this level, guidelines specific to assignments are often scarce, not applicable, or have gaps in specificity that require considerable interpretation and/or adaptation for application to issues and problems.  The employee uses judgment, initiative, and resourcefulness is deviating from established methods to deal with specific issues or problems, research trends and patterns, develop new methods and criteria, and/or modify, adapt, and/or refine broader guidelines to resolve specific complex issues and problems.

The nature of the research environment within which the appellant works presents assignments where guidelines or precedents are scarce (e.g., in validating new assays) and where the appellant must be resourceful in finding through literature search the most effective means of achieving results for specific applications.

Level 3-5 is not met.  At this level, the employee uses guidelines, such as broad policy statements, basic legislation, recent scientific findings, or reports that are often ambiguous and require extensive interpretation.  The employee uses judgment and ingenuity and exercises broad latitude to determine the intent of applicable guidelines, develop policy and guidelines for specific areas of work, and formulate interpretations that may take the form of policy statements, regulations, and guidelines.

There is no indication the appellant interprets and applies scientific findings that are ambiguous and require extensive interpretation.  For example, in developing the assay to detect food contamination, the appellant referenced previous reported work that was directly applicable to her efforts.  She provided no documentation where she started with ambiguous findings and designed and conducted studies to arrive at definitive conclusions.  The appellant, like all other scientists in the agency, shares the results of her work internally through the issuance of LIBs.  However, she does not have the authority nor would her position lend itself to the development of policies, regulations, or guidelines for compliance by others.   

Level 3-4 is credited (450 points).                                                                                                            

Factor 4, Complexity

This factor covers the nature, number, variety, and intricacy of the tasks or processes in the work performed, the difficulty in identifying what needs to be done, and the difficulty and originality involved in performing the work. 

The complexity of the appellant’s work meets Level 4-5.  At this level, work involves performing a variety of research, testing, or natural resources management duties requiring in-depth analysis and use of various control methods and techniques possibly including those in the experimental stage.  The employee analyzes issues involving abstract concepts; major uncertainties regarding the most effective approach or methodology; continually changing program or work requirements or technological developments; novel and obscure problems involving complicating factors and requirements; and intricate, inconclusive, variable, or conflicting data.  The employee develops standards, methods, and techniques to extend existing methodological capability; formulates solutions to unyielding or controversial problems; and anticipates future trends and requirements.

The appellant performs a wide range of research and/or testing duties both in relation to her own studies and to support the work of the research scientists.  These frequently require in-depth analysis in developing or validating a wide variety of assays and the use of various control methods and techniques.  For example, the appellant developed an assay for the rapid detection of products containing tissues from potentially toxic pufferfish; she tested the assay against 105 species of fish and was able to detect 20 species of pufferfish with no cross-reactivity to the 85 control species of nonpufferfish.  The work often involves uncertainties as to the most effective approach or methodology and novel problems involving complicating factors.  For example, because the processing of meat fragments its DNA, identifying the species content of processed foods requires considerable research and testing of those species-specific primers that may work on shorter DNA sequences.  The appellant works in a research and regulatory environment, the latter of which imposes continually changing program or work requirements which take precedence over ongoing research studies and usually involve species identification of regulatory samples, such as testing pet food chicken jerky products to determine their meat content.  In performing assays the appellant must recognize and resolve inconclusive or varying results; e.g., deriving from the use of ineffective primers.  The appellant develops techniques to extend existing methodological capability through the development of assays which apply established methodologies to new applications.  The development of the assay to detect food contamination was done at the request of FDA's regulatory component to provide them with a tool to rapidly detect the presence of pests that spread food-borne illness, and represented the first proven method of detecting 22 different species with one assay.  Lastly, the appellant's continuing development of a DNA barcode database of mammalian vertebrate species anticipates the need for such data for regulatory purposes, such as to detect the presence of endangered species in the rapidly expanding area of game meat import.

Level 4-6 is not met.  At this level, work involves broad and intensive efforts and problems of such scope and complexity that they require dividing work into components conducted concurrently or sequentially or using multi-disciplinary or cross-functional teams; and/or continual efforts to establish concepts, theories, or programs, or resolve persistent problems.  The employee conducts extensive investigation and analysis of largely undefined factors and conditions and determines the nature and scope of problems and devises solutions under such conditions as conflicting and changing goals and objectives; highly controversial and politicized programs; complexity in developing or complying with regulatory oversight; theory and practices that are largely undefined; and/or practices that are in a state of development or are extensively affected by advances in technology.  The employee develops policies and strategies and leads efforts to address scientific issues in areas where precedents do not exist; establishes new concepts and alternatives to problem identification and resolution; and/or applies a high degree of abstraction to originate concepts, theories, or programs.

The studies which the appellant has carried out independently are much narrower in focus than those expected at this level, and they have not resulted in the establishment of concepts, theories, or programs but rather in more limited products (such as manufactured primers) or individualized applications (e.g., an assay to detect food contamination by certain pests).  They do not involve extensive investigation and analysis of undefined factors and conditions but rather have well-defined objectives, such as determining whether pet food content matches the label descriptions.  The appellant does not develop policies and strategies or lead broad scientific undertakings, nor does she originate and establish new concepts to be applied to broader programs within the agency.

Level 4-5 is credited (325 points).                                                                                                            

Factor 5, Scope and Effect

This factor covers the relationship between the nature of the work, and the effect of the work products or services both within and outside the organization. 

The scope and effect of the appellant’s work meet Level 5-4.  At this level, work involves investigating, analyzing, and evaluating problems and situations involving a wide variety of circumstances or unusual conditions; developing new or improved techniques, criteria, or alternatives to meet requirements involving specific natural resources or research problems; and upgrading current capabilities involving natural resources or research activities.  Work results affect a wide range of scientific activities within the agency and the planning and direction of major investigatory or scientific projects.

The appellant investigates and analyzes a wide variety of circumstances and conditions through supporting a range of research activities; develops new and improved techniques, such as assays for species identification; and contributes to the upgrading of current capabilities involving research/regulatory activities, such as through her initiation of a mammalian vertebrate DNA barcode database.   Her role as a support scientist involves her in the planning and execution of major research projects and contributes to a wide range of agency regulatory activities. 

Level 5-5 is not met.  Relevant to the appellant’s position, at this level the work involves determining the validity and soundness of theories, standards, and guides for improving resource uses or research activities; and/or conducting assays of all products under regulatory control and in the area of functional responsibility, and developing new assay methods and new interpretations or findings.  The work results affect the development of major aspects of agency programs, long-range plans, and/or missions; well-being of a large number of people on a short-term basis; major activities of private organizations; operations of other Government agencies; and/or the state-of-the-art in the area of functional responsibility.

The appellant cannot be considered to be determining the validity and soundness of theories and standards for improving research activities.  She performs such work as conducting assays to validate methodologies or previous findings, and testing primer sequences to determine if they work for the intended purpose.  However, this involves determining the efficacy of particular techniques rather than the validity of broader theories or standards on which the research activities are based.  The appellant performs such work as conducting assays of pet products to determine their species content as requested, but within the given organizational context, these do not constitute all products under regulatory control within her area of functional responsibility. Her support scientist work affects the conduct of individual research projects but does not affect the development of major aspects of agency programs.  As discussed previously, her studies involve previously-untried applications of established methodologies such as PCR and DNA sequencing, but there is no indication she has personally advanced the state-of-the-art in species identification. 

Level 5-4 is credited (225 points).                                                                                                              

Factor 6, Personal Contacts

                and

Factor 7, Purpose of Contacts

These factors include face-to-face and remote dialogue with persons not in the supervisory chain.  The relationship between Factors 6 and 7 presumes that the same contacts will be evaluated under both factors.

Personal Contacts

The appellant’s personal contacts match Level 3, where contacts are with individuals or groups from outside the employing agency in a moderately unstructured setting, such as other Federal agencies, academia, or professional organizations. 

Level 4 is not met, where contacts are with high-ranking officials from outside the employing agency at national or international levels (e.g., leaders of national stakeholder or interest groups, Members of Congress, presidents of large national or international firms, or national news media).  The appellant has some international contacts within the scientific field, but they are not of this level of influence or authority.

Purpose of Contacts

This factor covers the purpose of personal contacts ranging from factual exchange of information to situations involving significant or controversial issues and differing viewpoints and objectives.

The purpose of the appellant’s contacts meets Level B, where contacts are for the purposes of planning and coordinating work or resolving issues or operating problems.  For example, the appellant works collaboratively with other scientists and contacts others within the field in seeking resolutions to problems encountered.

Level C is not met, where contacts are for the purposes of influencing and persuading others who may be skeptical or uncooperative, such as in gaining compliance with established policies or acceptance of established methods using persuasion or negotiation.  The nature of the appellant's work and her role within the organizational structure does not lend itself to these types of contacts.  

Level 3B is credited (110 points).                                                                                                              

Factor 8, Physical Demands

This factor covers the requirements and physical demands placed on the employee by the work situation.

The position matches Level 8-1, which covers work which is mostly sedentary in nature and poses minimal physical demands.

Level 8-1 is credited (5 points).

Factor 9, Work Environment

This factor considers the risks and discomforts in the employee’s physical surroundings or the nature of the work assigned and the safety regulations required.

The position matches Level 9-2, which describes work involving moderate risks and discomforts and special safety precautions and/or protective clothing and equipment.  The appellant works in a laboratory environment with exposure to, for example, chemicals, blood or tissue samples, and live animals, and must take the appropriate safety and protective precautions.

Level 9-2 is credited (20 points).

Summary
Factors Level Points
Knowledge Required 1-7 1250
Supervisory Controls 2-4 450
Guidelines 3-4 450
Complexity 4-5 325
Scope and Effect 5-4 225
Personal Contacts 6-3 110
Purpose of Contacts 7-2
Physical Demands 8-1 5
Work Evironment 9-2 20
Total 2835

 

The total of 2835 points falls within the GS-12 point range (2755-3150) on the grade conversion table provided in the JFS. 

Decision

The appealed position is properly classified as GS-401-12, with the title at the discretion of the agency. 

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