Over in the comments at Athene Donald’s blog there is another of those extended discussions of UK science careers going on, prompted also by Jenny Rohn’s recent posts on fellowship schemes and the work of the Science is Vital campaign.
Among the comments at Athene’s blog is a recent one from psychologist Tom Hartley. His first paragraph really nails something:
“I think Stephen [Curry] is right to highlight the plight of senior postdocs. It can’t really be argued that these are not competent and productive scientists since they have been hired and rehired on successive short-term contracts in a highly competitive market. These people are evidently playing a pretty important role, albeit not as research leaders. They will typically have accrued very specialised skills which really will be wasted if not put to use in one of the few labs (at widely scattered geographical locations) which use the same techniques. As the Science is Vital submissions showed, PIs are often very sorry to lose these people.When I talk about waste here I am not arguing that the individuals careers have been wasted, but that the scientific establishment, and the absence of an effective career structure is wasting their talents by forcing them out of science while training and retraining newcomers to try to fill their shoes.”
This chimed with me, as I have commented before on the waste of talent and know-how, and the sheer unfairness, when senior postdocs (people with maybe six to ten years post-PhD experience) have to leave the business. I got my PhD in early 1987 , and in the nigh-on 25 years since I have seen a fair few not just good, but really first rate, scientists I have worked with leave research science in the UK.
Let me tell you a story to illustrate this.
For a good chunk of my career, I used to be part of a kind of linked complex of small research groups in Manchester working in the area of epithelial (mostly exocrine) cell physiology. Nearly a decade ago now one of my buddies and I did a kind of unofficial ‘audit’ of our complex of linked PIs/research groups, and compared ourselves to a couple of our main competitor outfits. These included one in Australia, a country which I would say has a rather similar research culture to the UK. At the beginning of the 90s we had rated this outfit as being very much comparable to us.
When we did our audit, one of the things that very much stood out was that our Australian competitors had the same two senior postdocs in place in 2001 as they had had in 1990. Our Australian PI friends had been sufficiently successful in grant-raising to be able to keep these guys, both excellent scientists, first on successive project grants and latterly on fellowships. We reckoned this was a key part of the way our Aussie friends had inexorably ‘pulled away’ from us, in terms of papers published and funding, over the decade in between.
The two senior postdocs in question are now (2011) a full Professor and an Associate Professor in leading Australian Universities. Both are prospering in research.
In contrast, in our Manchester co-op during the 90s we had almost never been able to hold on to our best postdocs for even the full duration of a three year contract (grant). The reason for this was not beccause they were unhappy, or felt they couldn’t do cutting -edge research. It was unambiguously that we could never tell them, in all honesty, that we were likely to have the grant money to keep them on when the grant employing them ran out. Under these circumstances, the better people would regularly leave before the 3 year mark rolled around, as they did not want to leave finding the next job to the very last minute. It was typically only people who were a bit less good, or who had other personal reasons for staying local, who would do the full three years.
Anyway, three of our four best postdocs from this period left at around 30 months into a 36 month (three year) grant/contract because they were offered something elsewhere, either something more open-ended (notably in industry), or just a further 3 years on a grant in another city or country.
The consequence was that, unlike our Aussie friends, we (the PIs) had to keep training and re-training new people ourselves to do the same jobs – including quite ‘bespoke’ stuff like patch-clamping and calcium imaging. And skill level in our labs thus never rose beyond the ‘2 yrs in-house training’ mark. Nor did we generate in house a supply of people who could easily ‘spin off’ to their own fellowships, as we were mostly taking UK people straight from PhDs, or employing short term visitors from overseas (e.g. Japan) to ‘mop up’ the leftover ends of grants.
The 1990s were, of course, a time of notorious scarcity of research funding in the UK. The relevance of that to now, and the next few years, should hopefully not be lost on anyone reading this.
The need to contract-hop ultimately did not really benefit the best postdocs that we had trained either. One of our two top ones, as good a research scientist as I have met, actually did become a PI – probably a bit too young, paradoxically. However, after several years of struggle in an English University he eventually tired of juggling stupendous and mounting teaching load and a young family with trying to write six funding proposals a year, and opted for a teaching-only post in a US medical school. As he put it to me a year or two later:
“I decided it was better to do one job well, rather than several jobs [at the same time] half-arsed”
The other one left academia to work for a large consumer products company with a research division, but eventually found the ramifying bureaucracy there too much and quit research, re-training as a hospital radiation safety professional. So both our best postdocs of the 1990s were ultimately lost to scientific research, though they did end up in jobs related to science, or perhaps more accurately to medicine. But these two guys were, in the unanimous opinions of us PIs who had seen them work, at least as good research scientists as any of us were. They were the ones we would all have bet on to go the distance to PI and lab head, and beyond.
Now, as long as supply of trained scientists exceeds demand, this sort of stuff will probably continue. And some people, possibly even including the President of the Royal Society, might defend it as a kind of ‘minimal media selection‘ experiment – ‘only the strongest will survive’, and so forth.
But I wonder. Perhaps to succeed in the chase to PI you need, apart from strength and determination, a kind of lack of imagination as well. The imagination, I mean, to decide that this **** simply isn’t worth all the struggle, or worth the implicit gamble on your future that carrying on the struggle (staying in the business) implies.
The imagination to see that there are other things you can do to earn a living.
Or – could one person’s lack of imagination… be another person’s dedication?