Yesterday morning I woke up and realized that the entire logistical edifice underpinning the scientific profession is flawed. What’s more, I didn’t just see the problem; I had a glimpse of its solution.
What sparked all this off? Well, my career fears have been very close to the surface in recent months. It isn’t only mounting urgency inspired by the erosion of my last-chance fellowship – the consequences of economic recession promise increasingly poorer prospects in a game that was always going to be dicey. Our Faculty of Life Sciences just announced redundancies aimed at ten percent of research staff and, as funding bodies tighten their belts further, this may be only the beginning. If institutions can’t even hold on to the lab heads that have already established themselves, what hope is there for the likes of me?
They always say that the scientific profession is like an apprenticeship, but with a blast of unexpected clarity, I suddenly don’t buy this argument any more. If I were training in a normal craft or guild, I’d have a reasonable chance of joining its ranks at the end. Teach me to be a plumber, and in five years’ time, I’m pretty confident that I’d be out there fixing sinks and installing dishwashers for decent money.
Why don’t we have the same assurances in science?
Then I started thinking about the population biology of your typical lab – and the numbers just don’t add up. Trainee scientists – PhD students and postdocs – are not, as we all assume, bona fide trainee scientists – i.e., being trained to become lab heads. That couldn’t be right, because there are only a limited number of positions. If you merely wanted to train enough people to eventually replace you, your average lab head would only want to end up with one replacement – or maybe three or four, just in case of attrition. But this is not what happens. No, an average successful lab head will train up dozens of potential replacements. If a successful lab head runs a lab for 30 years, with say 4 PhD students at any one time, and assuming an average stint duration of 5 years worldwide, you’d expect about 6 “generations”, multiplied by those 4 positions = 24 potential replacements. (I leave postdocs out of the equation, as they train in multiple labs and can all be considered as former PhD students for the purposes of the math.) Even if half of these students don’t make the cut – die, drop out to have kids, get bored and do something else – the lab-head is still replacing herself more than 12-fold. Therefore, the argument that science is an “apprenticeship” is a gross misnomer, because only one of these 24 progeny will find a lab of their own – or fewer, if positions start being cut due to harsh economic times. That’s not what an apprenticeship should be about at all.
No, instead, what the lab head is doing is exploiting relatively cheap, disposable labor to bolster her personal reputation and that of the institute that houses her. And as unflattering as this may sound, I think it is more about money and disposability than we’d like to admit. Because whenever I ask why permanent research scientist positions for experienced post-docs are incredibly rare, I always hear the same explanation: they cost too much. If someone is good and has a lot of experience, you have to pay them what they’re worth: fancy that.
(As an aside, I know from experience that even if you are happy to take a very large pay cut and compete with newbie PhD students, or even graduates, for a rare research assistant or scientific officer job, you are still unlikely to be hired when you have too much experience for comfort.)
Let’s leave aside for a moment the idea that you get what you pay for: that an experienced post-doc can probably produce significantly more results than an inexperienced one, and a massive amount more than a new PhD student – that they may actually be worth the extra salary. It doesn’t matter: what you lack in quality you have in quantity: those dozen or so ‘apprentices’ under your lab roof at any one time may be horrifically inefficient, but they eventually get the job done. If they didn’t, the system would have ground to a halt ages ago.
No, the lab head and his reputation are fine; his university gets a good score in the national assessment, and scientific progress marches forward smoothly. Instead, our system passes the buck on to where things don’t run so smoothly: the bulk of the disposable apprentices, hitting a brick wall. Of course some can continue on in research, either productively in industry, or securing a rare, semi-permanent research associate position. But many leave science altogether, and some go into science-related jobs where a PhD or postdoctoral experience can get you hired: scientific publishing, science journalism, patent law, venture capital consulting, policy, public engagement, biotech sales, medical charity administration. I am not saying that these alternative careers are not viable or important. But should the meticulous, ridiculously long training of these practitioners be in the hands of the taxpayers and other contributors who think their money is being earmarked for scientific research? Is it fair that the bulk of, say, Medical Research Council-funded studentships and postdocs are being trained ultimately for other professions? What would that little old lady who wants to leave her entire inheritance to Cancer Research UK think if she knew that the majority of the apprentices trained with her money will end up in the City or working for journals or museums?
It just suddenly seems very wrong indeed.
Dear reader: I have a dream. In my dream, Phase I, all lab heads train only 3-5 students over their career lifetime – just enough to replace the current generation of lab heads, with a few extra in case of attrition. These students would be the very best that the universities produce, and competition would be fierce. A few more of the lab positions would be held for post-doctoral training of those few students. But the bulk of research staff in the labs of the world would be made up of permanent, professional scientists. These would be paid a lot more than ‘apprentices’, but you probably need far fewer of them to get the desired results. And perhaps a few more students and postdocs could be trained with money paid into a general institute kitty contributed by the other professions who now skim off science’s leavings. After all, these companies – banks, law firms, publishers, big pharma and the like – are getting the benefit of good staff without contributing to the bulk of their education and training. This way, you’d get a more efficient lab, all talented scientists would have real prospects in research and morale would be a lot higher. Perhaps more meaningfully, those who leave the bench for related jobs would not have to suffer through a superfluous number of postdoctoral years funded by siphoned-off research money that was intended for purer pursuits – you only need a PhD to do many of these jobs, not eight years of postdoctoral servitude during which pension and savings accumulations are concomitantly delayed.
What happens when the pool of permanent research staff is ten or fifteen years away from mass retirement? Here’s where we reach my dream, Phase II. Gradually you start expanding the university science places and PhD positions, letting in perhaps 2 to 3 times more than you’ll need to replace each of the permanent staff as they go offline. Eventually, with adjustments, the system should reach an equilibrium: enough PhD students to stably feed a majority pool of permanently employed, professional research scientists, each lab with a traditional lab head at its helm and a team of true apprentices.
Could this ever happen? I’m not sure, because it would take a cataclysmic culture shift. You’d have to persuade the universities to get rid of the bulk of their science undergraduate cash cows and their cheap research labor; and you’d have to convince labs and grants to find the funds to hire people long-term. You’d also have to disgorge and work through the digestive track the current glut of tens of thousands of starry-eyed students, the majority of whom are headed for broken dreams and jobs elsewhere. Make no mistake, it’s a massive oil tanker sailing at a brisk clip.
At a recent retreat, we had a guest speaker tell us about a massive new biomedical research institute being built at St Pancras in Central London. I raised my hand and asked: will it be business as usual for the temporary nature of postdoctoral staff? The speaker misunderstood me, explaining with pride that they were looking into arranging four or five-year positions for post-docs instead of the normal two to three. But imagine what might happen if a major, conspicuous institution like this decided to implement a plan like mine. Others would watch – and if successful, the model would be copied. Because one institute can make a difference. For example, historians often credit Cambridge’s Laboratory for Molecular Biology for instituting a cultural change in how science is done that spread throughout the entire world. Change is possible – but not if we’re too afraid to complain that change is sorely needed.
So who’s with me?