In which science careers get a fair hearing

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.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Careers, Policy, science funding, Science is Vital, The profession of science. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to In which science careers get a fair hearing

  1. cromercrox says:

    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?

    Excellent point. Some people are excellent at (for the sake of argument) grunting futtocks, but hopeless at management, therefore the worst thing you can do to reward a first-rate futtock-grunter is promote them, taking them away from futtock-grunting, but making them attend lots of meetings, perform appraisals and so on, and – worst of all – manage inferior futtock-grunters, while not allowing them to grunt any more futtocks themselves. This leads to depressed futtock-grunters and very poor managers.

  2. Just out of interest, did you invent that euphemism yourself? :-)

  3. Thanks for the roundup, Jenny. Could you elaborate more on this 7-year rule? I’ve been a postdoc now for 5 years and 8 months, so it’s quite relevant for me!

    Like you, I’m disappointed to see people trotting out the old reason that we can’t give senior postdocs job security in case they “go stale” or “stop producing”. Every year, fresh 22-year-old graduates are given permanent jobs in industry (or banking or consultancy or whatever) with far less proof of their ability to perform in the workplace than a postdoc has. Indeed, the companies seem to regard it as their responsibility to train their employees not to go stale or stop producing. I don’t understand why academia doesn’t think the same way.

  4. cromercrox says:

    No. It comes from a much-loved radio comedy show of yore called Round The Horne in which the late Kenneth WIlliams played a character called J. Peasemould Gruntfuttock. I’m sure Dr R. P. G. of ROtherhithe would give you the background.

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  6. I understood the 7 year cut-off to be 7 years in short term postdoc positions, which is not the same thing as landing a permanent position as fellowships would not be excluded. But it was just one suggestion.

    I think you have to distinguish – as I have tried to do on my own blog – permanent staff positions with no career progression prospects de facto but simply staying on as a vital and skilled pair of hands, from 22 year old graduates being taken on in permanent roles. No one expects that graduate to stay in the same place they started. I think there is a confusion of ideas here.

  7. ricardipus says:

    That Chatham House Rule, despite the lofty description on the website, smacks of Communist-era Soviet Repression to me. If you have a discussion where the views espoused are going to be made publicly available, why hide who said what? As a mechanism to encourage free and open debate… well if that’s what’s really wanted, why not simply close the doors?

    Yes, I know you didn’t make the rules for this particular debate.

    Back on topic, I also spent nearly 6 years in industry and learned a lot, but I think it really depends. In bigger companies, research scientists tend to work on much narrower projects than in smaller ones that may be more focused on discovery research. Half a dozen years focused on a very narrow field of research (or even one or a few closely related questions) might not be so beneficial.

    As for Henry’s point – as a first-class grant fuddler or whatever he said, I can also vouch that this kind of position can be tricky to deal with. Where I am, there is no real job description or role definition for what I do, which means I’m stuck in essentially the “wrong” job code. This has a number of ramifications including a couple related to salary range and advancement. Fortunately there is some move afoot to fix this, for myself and a number of others who are more-or-less “equivalent to me”. But it’s the same issue as you described above – mid-level, non academic-track, highly qualified and experienced scientists. Fortunately I seem to have fallen into a good position but I am one of the lucky few I think. Things here in Canuckistan certainly aren’t any better than on your side of the pond.

  8. Hi Athene

    There may indeed be nomenclatural confusion, but the thought out there is that longer-term postdocs could grow into, and then compete, for senior research staff positions. It happens now, organically, with the few posts that exist (or manage to be created to keep on those previously short-term contracted staff). The 22-year-old already has a role, and they are a lot more numerous – the more junior research assistant/tech role. These two things might be different streams altogether.

    The 7 year rule issue came up at the very end and was not elaborated upon, so I’m not at all sure that it wasn’t referring to our time-honored old friend, “number of years from PhD”, which is already used as a cut-off for most sorts of independent funding. If anyone out there knows, please tell me – as I said, it doesn’t come up for me on Google at all.

  9. Jenny: You brought up the 22 year old in industry, or banking, who has a permanent job. I wasn’t meaning to confuse with junior RA’s or technicians who are clearly different. But the permanence for the incoming graduate in these other spheres is because there are so many different routes within companies. I know economists who’ve gone into HR and scientists who’ve become patent specialists etc. But the model in academia means there are far fewer roles for people to go into, so less room for people to find they have skills beyond research yet stay in the same academic department and discipline.

  10. Actually removing deadwood from an organisation is not that straightforward, certainly in the UK.

    The site where I work has lost about 25% of its workforce through voluntary redundancy in the last 5 or so years. The process is semi-indiscriminate: a redundancy package is offered which is skewed towards those approaching retirement and there’s no guarantee that those that leave are the ones you wish would leave.

    Some UK companies do things differently, and my company does things differently in the US.

  11. Sorry for the confusion, Athene – I get what you were saying now.

    But let me challenge you on this point: “But the permanence for the incoming graduate in these other spheres is because there are so many different routes within companies….But the model in academia means there are far fewer roles for people to go into…”

    Right. I get this, but why is the model set in stone? Why CAN’T we consider changing the shape, thickening the pyramid or whatever you want to call it? 250 years ago, science was done by a bloke in an armchair. Nobody thought it could be any different. A hundred years ago science was done by teams almost entirely made up of men. Nobody thought it could be any different. Today, science is done by a legion of disposable male and female trainees: can it be any different one day? I say it can, and it’s worth considering ways that we might reposition the landscape so that a few more highly valuable people can be retained.

  12. Hi Ian, sorry it took me to long to moderate your comment. The comment about deadwood stemmed from what a one of the participants said about the culture in industry – he/she said that mediocrity was not allowed to persist. In publishing, I’ve seen this in action quite ferociously – sometimes it wasn’t straightforward and people got paid off, but they were extracted quite ruthlessly in the end. I’m sure it varies from sector to sector, but my point was in theory it’s possible to link staying to performance.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Hi Jenny,

    I’ve followed this debate online for a while but not commented much. Could you clarify one point about the staff scientist / long term postdoc positions you want: Are these people going to be eligible to apply for grants in their own right (i.e. like a lecturer but without the teaching?). Or are they going to be dependent on someone else’s grant? Or are they funded by the university to work in someone else’s lab? And are their research expenses funded by their own grant or by someone else’s grant? How do these issues work for the people in the USA where you say you see this working, at least for some staff scientists?

    I’m asking because of course the question of where the money comes from and where it goes to is critical in making a workable scheme for both supporting scientists and getting the best science done.

  14. Fully agree with Jenny’s comment at 8.24pm.

    To generalise wildly, many academics are not well-equipped with people skills, and would rather have their eye-teeth pulled than sit down to tell an underperforming postdoc/student that he or she needs to improve. In industry, this would be regarded as a manager’s duty.

    If we were to create more long-term positions, at whatever level, we would need a change of culture in academia. In order to avoid keeping too much deadwood, we’d need to identify those who are struggling, and help them to improve, if they can. Staff appraisals would have to be properly performed and valued, both by the PI and their staff. Unfortunately, there’s a strong culture against this kind of thing in academia; I think it’s regarded as too professional.

    But it could be done. As an example, the UK civil service used to be dominated by male graduates of two universities, and now it must be one of the fairest employers in the country.

  15. Hi Anonymous, thanks for your questions.

    The funding model can vary. For example, here in London, the Institute for Cancer Research and Cancer Research UK employ staff scientists/associate scientists – as I understand it, these are permanent posts seconded to labs, but if the PI left they would be redeployed in the same institute. (This happened to one of my friends and he was fine with the move, considered it a new challenge.) It’s the same in my own institute, which is an MRC unit, but this doesn’t seem to exist at UCL – I don’t know about other universities. In the States, I’m sure it varies from place to place. I’ve known some senior scientists who have been funded by the PI, but as the PI is tenured, this is essentially permanent – other times it’s been a departmental post. As far as consumables, the scientists I’ve known have been embedded in a lab, so the PI is paying for that research – but of course reaping the benefits, just as he/she would for a temporary contract working postdoc. Many of the respondents in our survey mentioned that it would be a good thing if non-PIs could also apply for grants, but in the UK at least, the system is shifting away from funding projects to funding people (PIs), so I don’t know what appetite exists for this.

    At Science is Vital, we were thinking there could be case for these post being jointly funded by HEFCE and funding bodies. One could for example remove a percentage of short-term contracted post fellowships so you could accommodate a few more staff scientists that way. It would best if the post was attached to the department, not the individual PI, for reasons of job security. On the other hand, if these people were very very good, I could see there being the sort of mobility that you also get with good PIs, if people wanted to have a change of scene. Personally, we wanted to get the idea out there for discussion – there are probably a number of ways to achieve this. In my institute, there is absolutely no problem hiring highly skilled and experienced permanent staff – for example, the people who run the EM facility – so it’s not as if academia doesn’t already have the means to do this. I just think some discussion about possibilities would be an interesting exercise.

  16. Jamie, I agree that change is always possible and thinking that “that’s the way it is now so that’s the way it should stay” isn’t always a very helpful attitude. It could be that all this discussion will come to nothing in the end, but I see no good reason not to at least consider the options.

  17. Ah, I keep forgetting to mention another thing that came up at the meeting…another way to “thicken the pyramid” is to make labs on average smaller (so you’d have an increase in lab heads). There was some talk of studies suggesting that smaller labs are more efficient, but the trend has been in the opposite direction. This is also an interesting suggestion in my opinion.

  18. rpg says:

    I think academia becoming more ‘professional’ can only be a good thing. We probably have to wait for a lot of old fogies to die off before we can make it happen, though.

    I’m all for smaller labs. While in Oxford I noticed one particular institute moving towards the ‘American model’ of huge labs; with many people sharing too little space. I suspect they also had postdocs working on the same project, i.e. competing with each other in the same lab. You’re not telling me that’s efficient (it might result in more papers for the PI, but on average it doesn’t work).

    Another lab I was in was large, but most of the bulk was undergrads and grad students. So, not only seasonal variations, but many folk who aren’t (very) productive (simply because they’re either learning the trade, or teaching it!).

    The most productive lab I was ever in was the second smallest, and also the most cost-effective (in terms of papers per pound funding). I’d reckon the sweet spot is around six people: PI, permanent lab tech/manager, couple of postdocs, couple of grad students.

  19. Ian the EM Guy says:

    Jamie:

    “To generalise wildly, many academics are not well-equipped with people skills, and would rather have their eye-teeth pulled than sit down to tell an underperforming postdoc/student that he or she needs to improve. In industry, this would be regarded as a manager’s duty.”

    This is probably true, but only because the PI knows that they only have to wait a year or so to get rid of them anyway. If this were not the case then I’m sure PIs would be more proactive in mentoring/arse-kicking their staff.

    Jenny:

    “In my institute, there is absolutely no problem hiring highly skilled and experienced permanent staff – for example, the people who run the EM facility”

    And brilliant they are too ;-)

    I suppose there are many ways to fund and assign permanent staff. There are those like me and our other “technical specialists” for want of another term who become “core staff”, running a facility, and collaborating with the groups in the Institute to get the best out of the specialist techniques, whilst also developing new techniques and optimising protocols to fit labs needs. We could be funded either seperately, or by siphoning a little off the funding of every group in the institute to provide services for all. Other more traditional postdoc permanent staff could be centrally funded by the institute or funding body that owns/runs the institute and choose a lab to work in for a minimum time period, whereupon they could then choose to move labs if they want/or indeed stay put. After all, our PhD students here choose the lab to do their project in rather than the other way round. If no lab wanted the postdoc maybe they could be fired then, which would stop people getting “too stale”.

  20. @rpg:

    “I suspect they also had postdocs working on the same project, i.e. competing with each other in the same lab. You’re not telling me that’s efficient (it might result in more papers for the PI, but on average it doesn’t work)”.

    I’ve heard those horror stories too, and in fact my PhD supervisor warned me off doing a postdoc in the US (even though he did one himself) because it’s apparently so widespread. I’ve always thought it was a ridiculous way of doing science (or indeed anything), and it’s depressing to hear that it might be spreading.

    Ugh.

  21. “I’d reckon the sweet spot is around six people: PI, permanent lab tech/manager, couple of postdocs, couple of grad students.”

    I would broadly agree, but of course the problem there is that, at least in the UK, the second job on that list does not exist any more (see discussions passim). Or at least, it doesn’t exist unless you have (as a PI) a 5 year renewable programme grant – which, in and of itself, would make you distinctly well-funded in UK terms.

    I would say that in the UK a lot of the system is now working mostly in ‘binary mode’, since in many places you have to have a grant to be allowed to supervise grad students. Hence:

    State 1 – Has grant: PI + postdoc + grad student
    State 0 – No grant: PI only

  22. rpg says:

    That’s partly what this is all about–those powerhouse permanent positions.

  23. K.R says:

    I just want to say that in France, where I come from but decided not to go back to, there is such a thing as mid-level permanent positions. These are called “charge de recherche” (CR) and they correspond to my idea of a staff scientist (I don’t like the “permanent post-doc” phrase that suggests indeed immobilism and staleness). They are pretty difficult to get but at least they exist. All labs have these CR. They may progress to lab head or not. But they have a recognised, respected position and, importantly, are subjected to evaluation.

  24. Jo says:

    I have been a postdoc for 6.5 years and know many other postdocs of similar endurance. In my experience people in their second post-doc are generally there because they love their job and are good at it (they often work harder than 1st time postdocs and for same money!). The only thing that might make them stale is the frustration at the lack of career progression available to them.

    Many would like to continue just doing research in a role, such as a ‘staff researcher’ or even scientific officer as a preference to PI or lecturer. However, just because a funding body has such posts in their staff structure, doesn’t mean that research groups/ centres are willing to create the jobs, often preferring to stick to a ‘one contract and then you are out’ policy. This avoids any discussion over the 4 year change to an open-ended contract.

    I like the idea of flattening the staffing structure in both ways: more small groups and more permanent experienced research staff. Research groups work better where there is continuity in the lab provided by a permanent scientific officer/ technician even when it is a small group. The larger the group the more vital these posts are, otherwise the students and younger staff do not receive the support they need, and that leads to expensive waste in the lab in time and reagents.

    Indeed things seem to be getting worse for researchers, with contracts getting shorter, no financial acknowledgment of experience and huge competition to get fellowships. At research staff association meetings it has been interesting to discover that the same story in all disciplines, not just biological sciences.