Once again I revisit the question broached by Science is Vital in our recent report Careering Out of Control? A Crisis in UK Science Careers. Last week I participated in a round table discussion about this very issue co-hosted by Paul Nurse, the President of the Royal Society, and David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science. Also present were about a dozen high-flying stakeholders from industry, education and policy – I was the only academic post-doc present. (The meeting took place under Chatham House Rule, which means I can discuss what was said but not by whom; fellow OT blogger Athene Donald, one of the participants, has also summed up her thoughts here, and we’ve both given a very short précis to the RS blog. I should also stress that although the meeting was about research of all kinds, I’m coming at this from the science point of view.)
I fully expected to have to defend the idea that all isn’t rosy with academic research careers, so I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that its significant structural problems and instabilities seemed accepted by most from the start. In the UK, it’s estimated that 89% would like to stay, but there is only space for about 4%. In fact, there was discussion that we need a “cultural change” and, as no one else in the world has yet tackled this problem, the UK has the opportunity to lead internationally on this complex and important problem. I must admit this was far from the “all talk and no action” scenario I imagined might have resulted from such an exercise.
Yet from this beginning, an obvious division of opinion developed. Some wanted to frame the discussion solely on facilitating the “graceful exit” from the pyramid (in other words, the shape is what it is, and we should try to work around it). But others wanted to probe at the shape itself, and whether it could be altered – for example, the feasibility of “fattening the pyramid” (i.e. creating more mid-level, permanent jobs for highly skilled research staff; at the moment, only 3.5% of researchers hold these positions). I was pleased when the decision was made to discuss this question, but was disappointed at some of the opinions of long-term postdocs aired around the table. Phrases such as “surely if they didn’t make it in a few years they never would” and “most of these postdocs in the holding pattern don’t belong in research anyway”, in all fairness, probably reflect the experiences of the people espousing these views. Equally, in my field I have seen many, many brilliant scientists forced out by bad luck and circumstances, simply because their potential took a little longer to show or they were in the 6th percentile on a fellowship and the cutoff was 5. I have also been honored to know and work with permanent research staff whose skills and talents are awe-inspiring, and who are worth many times over their slightly higher salary in terms of what they give back to the teams and lab heads who house them.
Seeing as how their less encouraging views and my complimentary ones are both anecdotal, I’d favor seeing some hard numbers. Hypothetically speaking, as a thought experiment, if fellowship applications cut off at 5% and the losing 95% have to go, just how “bad” were those in the 6 to 10th percentile? In the 11th to 15th? Was there a steep step-change at 5, or was it just a very gradual continuum? Do all quick-off-the-mark superstars who get independence always do well, and do the few old-timers who managed to start a lab later in life always do poorly? Some researchers would rather leave than not be a lab head, but there are probably a large number who would be well suited to a permanent non-PI research job and who would flourish in that environment. So how big is that latter pool?
The usual opinion that “permanent research staff tend to go stale” was aired, as it always is. To me, this begs the question: will a brilliant researcher passionate enough about science to enter a risky career for little monetary benefit really suddenly go “stale” at the first whiff of job security? To me, this assumption is insulting. But even if this tendency to go stale exists in some cases, what is to stop these positions from being competitive and periodically assessed? The answer at the roundtable – “it doesn’t seem fair to chuck people out after going stale” – seems a bit ridiculous. First, no other profession has a problem excising dead wood, and second, the current system chucks out thousands of older people who haven’t gone stale without even blinking. If a competitive, properly assessed job was on offer, I have no doubt there would be talented researchers who would rise to the occasion.
The rest of the meeting focused mostly on ways to equip researchers to leave academia. Many participants sang the praises of encouraging academic researchers to do a stint in industry to equip them with valuable skills and experience. I couldn’t agree more, as the five years of biotech experience under my belt were invaluable. But industrial stints are not always rewarded in the current system. For example, the Royal Society University Fellowship Scheme does not allow applicants to disqualify time spend in industry from the ticking clock of “time from PhD” eligibility, even though in many cases publication is impossible and your track record will look far worse than someone who has played it safe by staying in the academic fold. Removing disincentives will be as important as adding incentives, in my opinion.
And finally – if we want to encourage leavers to leave early in their career, how can this be enforced? There appeared to be a well-known concept called “seven years and you’re out” which I found rather alarming. This phrase draws a blank on Google, but from context I think they were talking about postdoctoral years. As I mentioned on my Royal Society blog wrap-up, such a concept might not sit well with a profession that knows very well the role of luck and slower-germinating potential in research. Indeed, even the current President of the Royal Society took more than seven years to land his first permanent position (it’s closer to ten years, if I’m reading his biography correctly).
But overall, I left the meeting happy with the congenial and constructive nature of the event, and for the opportunity to have brought up some of the points that emerged strongly from Science Is Vital’s recent consultation. This is not the end of the story by any means, and I sincerely hope that the trend to include academic post-docs in these sorts of discussions will continue.