The scientific profession is inherently broken.
I’ve blogged in the past about the glut of increasingly desperate post-docs battling it out for a diminishing pool of permanent positions funded by a dwindling pot of research funding. As the culture of our profession stands at the moment, a healthy lab head can churn out 40 trainees over his scientific lifetime – but the only significant source of permanent positions in academia are those same lab head jobs (senior tech jobs being almost non-existent these days, especially permanent ones). So after replacing himself, this leaves 39 scientists in surplus. Industrial and public sector labs will soak up a few, but the rest will have to leave research permanently.
The solution, I’ve argued, is to reduce the number of trainees and to increase the number of permanent, non-lab head positions in the academic scientific career structure: to nurture and cherish the scientists we train, not exploit them for cheap labor to enhance the lab head’s CV and then spit them out when they’ve run their contract-work options into the ground.
Am I bitter? You bet. Is this stance personal? Intimately.
Age discrimination became illegal in the EU in October 2006, but science cleverly gets around this problem by putting restrictions into their fellowship eligibility criteria. At some arbitrary span of time after being awarded a PhD – typically 5-10 years – researchers apparently turn into pumpkins.
Let’s look at my specific example. I received my PhD in June 1996, nearly 15 years ago. Most funding bodies allow you to subtract time out for a career break. Some only allow childbirth or compulsory military service as good excuses, which would rule out my four-year stint in publishing, but for the bodies that don’t care why you left, this will still put me at 11 years when my current fellowship expires. So when the Wellcome Trust awarded me a career re-entry fellowship at year 7, it was with the knowledge that when I emerged at the other end, I would no longer be eligible for any further Wellcome schemes: I’m too past-it for their senior fellowships (10 years) and too junior for their Investigator scheme (which requires an accumulation of corresponding authorships and grants, something that a re-entry fellow can’t realistically expect to obtain when the sponsoring institution doesn’t see us in that junior lab-head role).
At this point it seems clear that I can’t launch straight into a lab head position. It took me quite some time to get back into the swing of things after my career break, and four years was not enough time to build up my CV to effectively compete. What I really need is another fellowship to bridge my way: there seem to be a few options, but I’m already a pumpkin in the eyes of many besides Wellcome: the BBSRC (10 years); the HFSP (10 years), the MRC (6 years, though they allow extensions for “exceptional circumstances”), and so on. In the interests of my non-British readership, I had a look at funding websites in the US and the EU, but was forced to retreat straight away by the veritable wall of jargon. (“F Kiosk”, “SF424 (R&R)” and “PHS 416-9”, anyone? No, me neither.)
I honestly question the validity of an arbitrary sell-by date, which seems so sacrosanct that only “exceptional” circumstances warrant their breach. Is a researcher really qualitatively less attractive at year 11 than at year 10? It shouldn’t matter how old or experienced a research is: she should be weighed on her individual merits. Of course, in a system that churns out a vast glut of young trainees, perhaps the rationale goes something like this: If she didn’t make it in 10 years, she probably never will, so expel her from research and give a young person the chance instead. It reminds me of a scene I saw at Euston Station the other day: a group of tourists coming off the bottom of an escalator and just standing there in bewildered confusion as columns of descending commuters yelled at them to get out of the way so they wouldn’t get knocked over. I was one of the people yelling: can you blame me? If you reach the end of the line, shouldn’t you step aside?
The problem is that everyone is an individual, with his own story to tell. I washed up here at year 11 through a complicated web of cause and effect: yes, a lot of my own career decisions influenced the outcome, but so too did things out of my direct control – a biological model that didn’t pan out, the decision by a post-doctoral supervisor to relocate his lab to a country where I couldn’t follow for personal reasons, a biotech company that went bankrupt. I may be a 40-something post-doc, but this doesn’t mean that I’m not an asset to science, that I don’t deserve a chance to carry on if my CV and track record are good enough.
I propose we call a spade a spade: arbitrary sell-by dates in senior fellowship eligibility criteria constitute age-discrimination, plain and simple. Shouldn’t they be illegal?