In Praise of Technicians

I was a very ham-fisted PhD student. I repeatedly broke a delicate and crucial piece of apparatus during the early months of my research, to the extent that I almost quit the whole endeavour and withdrew from the labs for a couple of weeks while I contemplated my future. I was to a large extent ‘saved’ by the skills of the workshop technician, who would smile as I entered the workshop holding the mangled piece of apparatus (a ‘tilting cartridge’ for the electron microscope) and a day or two later return it neatly reassembled and ready for use. I can still remember his positive attitude towards my incompetence; he never showed any sign of the irritation he probably felt.

Many years later, twenty perhaps, when I was running my own research group as part of a larger endeavour in Cambridge, we were interviewing for a technician, skilled in workshop work but also more broadly supporting the research group. The person we hired, eminently well-qualified but recently made redundant by a local firm who was shrinking its workforce, turned out to be the son of my early acquaintance. Like father, like son, they were both wonderful people who made so much difference to the way research could be done. In due course I attended the funeral of the father, not least to support the son.

By the time we hired the son, I was long removed from my own hands-on research, but my students used his skills in the design and production of cells for carrying out synchrotron experiments. Sometimes, I feared, they abused his goodwill by their demands and, perhaps inevitably, leaving their request for urgent work till the last moment; synchrotron beamtime is rigidly assigned so timing was crucial. He was the one who knew which kind of seals worked best to stop leaks from the cells, or which metal combination gave the best thermal contact but without mechanical distortion at temperature. The students, typically, just wanted to analyse the results, but these would not have been forthcoming without the input of this experienced technician.

We don’t celebrate all that technicians do, often without even local appreciation or recognition, nearly enough. I am delighted that the Royal Society has today joined many other organisations already signed up, in signing the Technician Commitment.  As their tagline says, technicians make it happen. The Commitment ‘aims to ensure visibility, recognition, career development and sustainability for technicians’. This is definitely something that leadership in research organisations should be bearing in mind.

It has been encouraging to hear Ottoline Leyser, in the first six months of her time as UKRI’s CEO, stress in various speeches that it’s the entire team who play a crucial part in the production of novel results and that the PI alone should not be feted with accolades, as if they acted in splendid isolation. We will wait to see how she changes the incentive system in our universities – or how she creates an atmosphere in which the universities themselves change them – so that this laudable vision becomes reality.

The technicians I have employed over my career have been wonderful, understated individuals. Those we employed as chemical safety technicians tended to have degrees, the mechanical workshop technician I referred to above, who must have worked in the group for twenty odd years, had (if I recall correctly) an HND qualification. He got infrequent increments of pay, but there was no obvious career structure for him or his like. This is an issue which the TALENT programme is very much focussed on. It is led by a consortium of eight universities making up Midlands Innovation, working with stakeholders and industry partners. Funded by a £3M grant from Research England plus contributions from its partners, it seeks to highlight the crucial role technicians play in research and innovation and improve their lot, including career progression. With the recent White Paper on Skills, and the focus on sub-degree qualifications (levels 4/5), there should be scope for a better pipeline of skilled technicians looking ahead.

But, why should those leaving school or further education consider such roles if there is no likelihood of career progression? It is important that the employers give more thought to this, despite the challenge that many technicians (in universities at least) may be employed on fixed-term grants, a problem for the research group as well as the individual. Long term funding of technicians, supported by the university itself, or at least the department, are less common than they were when I set out on my research career.

Alongside this work with the universities and other stakeholders, a TALENT Policy Commission, chaired by Sir John Holman, has also been established. I am delighted to have been asked to join this body.  This Commission will be looking at the future technical skills needs of UK higher education; there has been very little research directed at this question over the years. The Gatsby Foundation has made it clear they believe there will be a shortfall of technicians, not least because of an aging cohort and insufficient numbers entering their ranks. Back in 2016 they reported that 700,000 more technicians would be needed across all employers (i.e. not just the university sector) within the next decade to satisfy demand. Without a sufficient supply we can expect to see a direct impact on the success of higher investment in research and innovation, particularly if the skillset of those employed in technician roles is not moving fast enough with the shift towards digital technologies and a need for familiarity with data science.

As the 2016 Gatsby report said, technicians are the backbone of the economy. Equally, they are a vital part of university research teams. Both these facts are too often overlooked.

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2 Responses to In Praise of Technicians

  1. Chris Baker says:

    Thank you for this piece. From my time in research (30+ years ago now, so verging on ancient history), I remember the vital role played by the technicians working in our research group, and how no results would ever have been produced without their skilled input.

    I have long felt that the country needs to significantly improve the quality and quantity of its technical education, to bring on the skilled youngsters upon whom we shall depend to produce the new technologies that will be required to meet the challenge of climate change, and to generate the national income which will pay our pensions! And you rightly highlight the need for not only training at the outset of their careers, but a structure that enables them to progress.

    Will our rulers – most of whom do not have a background in science, engineering or technology – ever give this issue the priority and funding that it needs? I am not holding my breath, nor making plans for a life of leisure in retirement.

  2. Laurence Dawkins-Hall says:

    A great article

    I am one of those “untouchables” with 30 + years experience as a technician in the UK but also America and Germany. We could learn a thing from both of those countries in terms of how techs are treated

    A seminal challenge for techs in Universities in particular is not just recognition of technical skills but making sure – for everybodies sake – that those skills are not lost by “dumbing down” job roles

    10 years ago i was a highly skilled molecular biologist with joint first authorship for example of a drug siscovery/assay design paper in Nucleic Acid Research. Now i clear out labs and cold rooms and empty rubbish

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