Science is Vital meets David Willetts

Cross-posted from Science is Vital.

Following the publication of our report on science careers in the UK, which drew on nearly 700 responses to a call for evidence, members of the Science is Vital team met with Minister of State for Universities and Science, the Rt Hon David Willetts, MP, on Thursday 6th October to discuss matters arising and explore how careers in science can be made more secure and more productive.

Mr Willetts began by commending Science is Vital for raising the issue of careers in science in the panel discussion he took part in earlier this year, and for the report itself, which he said was of great value. He said that he expected only a summary of the issues arising on the evening itself, and that the wider consultation came as a (pleasant) surprise. He then invited Dr Jenny Rohn, Chair of Science is Vital and postdoctoral researcher at UCL, to summarize the issues. Jenny said that the breadth and variety of problems identified in the report indicated a systemic problem with careers in science that needed addressing if British science was to remain internationally competitive.

Jenny also observed that at such a time of austerity with a funding freeze in publicly funded research, such structural problems were being felt more acutely than before—a point reinforced by Dr Richard Grant, who said that the funding increases in recent years had masked the instability in science careers that had existed for nearly forty years.

Mr Willetts acknowledged that the insecurity and high staff turnover that short-term contracts lead to are problematic, and that both funding and links to other career paths need to be strengthened. Professor Stephen Curry (Imperial College) pointed out that more funding was not necessarily the answer, and that the issues raised by the consultation were more to do with the way that funding was allocated and the lack of long-term or permanent research positions.

Mr Willetts contended, at this point, that given spending constraints there would be a trade-off between having more secure positions for postdoctoral scientists and the intake of fresh blood in the form of young scientists with new ideas and energy, something that the Royal Society’s Martyn Poliakoff has identified as being central to a successful research sector. Dr Prateek Buch (UCL) made the counter point that this infusion of new talent shouldn’t come at the expense of continuity and institutional memory within research groups, also crucial to generating good outcomes, and that the balance between the two was currently too far in favour of the former. Richard highlighted another difficulty inherent in short-term contracts: high-risk, ‘difficult’ projects cannot be contemplated. The current system rewards low-risk projects that are guaranteed a large number of papers—the ‘low-hanging fruit’ approach to science. This is not necessarily good for science, or Britain, in the long term.

Mr Willetts agreed with the Science is Vital team that more needed to be done for and by the research community to promote stable careers whilst retaining the competitive drive that makes UK science so successful. He appreciated the analogy made by one of the contributors to the report, which pointed out that it would be ludicrous for the teaching profession to have a career structure whereby all teachers were expected to make it to head teacher by the age of 40—at which point they would do no teaching—or leave the profession.

The team also raised the issue of the somewhat chaotic transfer between a career in science and other professions or jobs—suggesting that greater emphasis should be placed early on in scientists’ careers on training for the eventuality of leaving academic science for industry, teaching or other allied employment. Richard stressed that the Government did have a role to play in encouraging industry to contribute more to the training of students and early postdocs, and in preparing them for a career in industry. There was a brief discussion about how this might be achieved.

The Minister also agreed that science careers were ‘atomistic and not family friendly,’ indicating that a great deal of work needs to be done to support women and families through the scientific career structure—something that Jenny emphasized was of real concern according to the consultation and report. Mr Willetts said that this was an area that the Government could take more action on under an equality agenda.

Mr Willetts also acknowledged how the current imbalance in science careers is reflected in our report, and that this was a matter for the research community to raise with funding bodies, research councils and learned societies. To this end he invited Jenny to attend a roundtable discussion between the relevant bodies, at which the issues raised in our report will be discussed. This enables grassroots scientists to express their concerns, but crucially it will also be the beginning of a vital dialogue between Government, funding bodies and scientists as we aim to reshape science careers to support investigators and keep British science at the top of its game.

Science is Vital was glad of the opportunity to present the report to the Minister, and we wish to extend profound thanks to all our respondents and supporters for providing us with such high quality evidence.

—Prateek Buch & Richard P. Grant

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2 Responses to Science is Vital meets David Willetts

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    Whilst I do not disagree with the report, I do not think it goes anywhere near far enough. Its title suggests that it refers to the whole of science in the UK, but apart from a few words on page 5 which mention research institutes and industrial laboratories, it is entirely about the career structure in academia.

    Now I agree that the career structure in academia needs fixing and this report is a very good contribution to that, but I do not think that the career structure in academia can be considered as completely separate to the career structure in science outside academia. The Royal Society’s own publication “The Scientific Century” (March 2010) has a relevant figure (1.6), which shows 53% of PhDs having careers outside scientific research, 17% in non-university research and of the 30% post-docs, only 3.5% having permanent research positions and only 0.45% attaining professorships. If we just look at the 26.5% that drop out of academia after one or more post-doc positions, are the authors of the report suggesting that all of these should be permanently funded – or perhaps a lower proportion, but above the present 3.5%?

    The Figure does not identify the proportions of those with post-doctoral experience who end up outside science as opposed to in industrial or goverment research laboratories although the width of the arrows suggest that those lost to science represent by far the larger proportion. Accepting that this is a waste of expensively-trained talent, I would argue that we not only need to retain post-doc scientists in academia, but we also need to develop new science-based industries that create a demand for such researchers. Some of these industries may come from academics setting up companies to develop discoveries made during their research into commercial products, but I do not think that we should rely on this as the sole route to creating new science-based industries; the Government itself should look at funding industrial research.

    There is a precedent for this. Back in 1918 at the end of the First World War, the then government realised that our technology was inferior in many areas to that of the Germans. Their response was to set up a number (I think that someone once told me it was 43) of Research Associations to carry out research in different industries. I had the good fortune to work (much later) in one of these (The British Scientific Instrument Research Association or Sira Institute Ltd as it was then known). These were originally funded mainly by the DTI (and its predecessors) with relatively small fees paid by companies for access to the research. This approach worked well in the early years because the companies were mostly small and the Research Associations could carry out research that none of the companies could afford on their own. By the 1970’s two factors were working against this model: first, many of the small companies had merged or been taken over and the few large companies could afford the research costs; secondly, the Rothschild report in the early 1970’s proposed the “customer-contractor” approach to funding research, which cut away the base of DTI funding. Many organisations, like Sira, became out-and-out contract research companies.

    I think that our situation now has certain similarities to 1918; to borrow Vince Cable’s phrase we are facing the “economic equivalent of war” and we will have to grow new science-based industries. One sector where there are large companies with an existing science base is in defence research and, whilst I think that there are benefits in persuading these companies to diversify out of a total reliance on defence, I do not think that they provide a complete answer either to the problem of creating new areas of science research that will provide places for the post-docs who do not fit into an expanded academic system.

  2. Hi Laurence

    Thanks for your comments. I think I can speak for the authors of the report. The main point of our campaign was to explore the problems inherent in academic science careers in the UK, which is why our report was focused on this. And nearly all of the 700-some respondents were academics, so we wanted to make sure their voices were heard. We recognize that there are many careers outside of academic research where academic researchers can go, and that these are valuable to society, but our interest at the moment is in seeing whether we can start a discussion about improving the academic career structure from within.

    I should also point out that we are not a professional research organization, but just a small group of grassroots volunteers, largely scientists with very busy day jobs, who put together this report after hours on no budget and very limited time. Of course it could have been more thorough or looked at additional parameters, but we simply didn’t have the resources. It is meant to be a springboard for further discussion, not a definitive endpoint.

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