Science Careers: has the science establishment let down young researchers?

16 June 2011

SCI was represented at the Royal Institution's debate on 24 May 2011 on the topic: Science Careers: has the science establishment let down young researchers?

The discussion was chaired by Dr Evan Harris, Director of Campaign for Evidence-based Policy; and the panel included Dr Jenny Rohn, founder of grassroots science campaigning group Science is Vital, and former SCI staffer and Professor Dame Athene Donald FRS, Professor of Science, Engineering and Technology, Cavendish Laboratories, University of Cambridge and Director of Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative (WiSETI), Fellow of Robinson College.

The following proposition was addressed to the Rt Honourable David Willetts MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science (pictured):

'It's the scientists and the engineers who will ultimately develop and build the supply of clean energy we will need, the artificial organisms key to future biotech, and the robotics crucial to our growing strength in the space sector. But young scientists are fed up with short term contracts, poor salaries and uncertain career progression. Do the 'great and the good' have their interests at heart?'

Prior to the Minister joining the meeting, the panellists and audience were asked to pose questions and topics that might be addressed by the Minister. The following is a summary, and includes questions posted via Twitter:

  • A reduction in university funding has caused redundancies in non-tenured research staff. Young post-docs are the first to go, resulting in a dislocation in career progress and security.
  • Government department budgets do not permit long-term planning; and this also leads to the break-up of research teams and lack of continuity in research, with consequent waste to the taxpayer
  • Cost benefit: it currently costs £12,500 to study for a PhD. Where are the incentives to stay in the UK? Germany has an employment law that forbids rolling contracts - after a period of five years the university must offer fixed tenure.
  • For every (circa) 24 permanent posts available there are at least 100 post-docs seeking work. Where does the responsibility lie for allowing high numbers of post-docs into the system with no career opportunity?
  • Career progression: can Science Parks help?
  • There needs to be a better opportunity for research scientists to work in industry/R&D pharmaceutical companies. Is government working to ensure these companies stay in this country?
  • Data collection: is the government collecting data to assess the number of post-docs scientists in the UK?
  • How many MPs know anything about science?
  • Waste of students: post-docs are seen as disposable workers and cheap labour.
  • Does the Minister have any idea where the jobs are to be found?
  • Women's careers have to become subject to tighter employment law in universities. Too many universities are allowed to flaunt employment law on allowing women to take career breaks. Difficulties also arise for young women on fixed contracts who wish to take a career break to have children.
  • Lack of clarity for career progression.
  • Need to create jobs for those who want to work on the bench - not jobs for the professors who are in many cases little more than administrators. Universities should be encouraged to provide permanent teaching posts for post-docs
  • Some people just want to 'do science'. Why is there no funding for those who just want to follow this as a career path?
  • Well-funded labs barely exist. The researchers are there only short term - the system is not efficient.

In the course of the evening David Willetts talked about and considered the following:

  • Science is vital: the coalition government is committed to ensuring value as well as economic benefit to the UK. The science budget remains ring-fenced for the next four years; and every pound will be spent only on the science community.
  • The issue of the career structure for scientists being pyramid-shaped is not just true of the UK; this structure is found throughout Europe and the United States.
  • Acknowledged: many post-docs have a slim chance of becoming Professors (or even Readers) The coalition government is trying to ensure better training for post-docs and better career prospects. The wish is to alleviate difficulties for those who are caught on the treadmill of endless research grant applications and short term jobs.
  • Acknowledged: there are fewer jobs for post-docs; a change in the structure of research groups is not cost-efficient. The need to understand, and hold on to the wisdom of the lab is also acknowledged, but there is a trade-off - there may need to be reductions elsewhere.
  • While it is regretted that researchers go abroad to work, the government realises that we live in a 'global world' - and there is no wish to be protectionist. In terms of scientific discovery it is often the case that discontinuity acts as an agent for good - many Nobel prize winners have been compelled to take their knowledge elsewhere and have profited from the experience of working with many people in many different environments.
  • It is essential that the UK has and maintains gender equality, but there are challenges. The science model is one of a rootless society. The clustering of science labs is often good - although an individual may leave one research establishment, it does not mean he/she must move from home. Clustering labs within one geographical area is something that enables families to stay together and encourages women to remain within the research workforce.

(Professor Athene Donald challenged the Minister on the issue of gender equality: many universities encourage women not to state they intend to take career breaks, which is unlawful. Women who are open about their intention to have families often have trouble obtaining jobs and promotion).

The Minister in response said this is regrettable: such universities are flouting the employment law. However it is up to the individuals to challenge such a 'culture'. The Minister reminded the audience that the government does not plan academic careers; the structure of research within universities is one for each university to decide upon. The government would like to see better mentoring taking place with the universities.

The Minister disputed the fact that post-docs are not used to teach - on the contrary he had heard complaints that too many post-docs are used to cover 'teaching' sessions. Addressing the demise of the pharmaceutical work in the UK, the Minister expressed disappointment that Pfizer had closed its research and development site in Kent. GlaxoSmithKline has also shifted its R&D to Europe and North America. The Minister did not make a statement about the number of research positions lost in the UK.

Dr Harris thanked the Minister for attending the session and expressed the hope that he would understand that the topic of research careers was unlikely to fade away. Dr Harris proposed that Dr Willetts consult 'workers from the coal face' before making decisions about university research funding; noting that it is vital to collect testimony and to work with organisations that watch over post-doc careers.

The Minister said he was prepared to listen and was grateful for the points raised. He was prepared to accept an invitation for a follow-up meeting.

Dr Susan Burningham
(Susan is happy to forward any comments to the panellists).

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