Is this an Insoluble Problem?

Previous posts by fellow OT blogger Jenny Rohn (here and here) and me (here) about fellowship funding have sparked a lot of debate and interest. With the report that Science is Vital has just produced for David Willetts described in another of her posts, plus the round table that Jenny and I will both be participating in later in the month with Willetts, Paul Nurse and others at the Royal Society, it seems timely to revisit this issue. More specifically, I’d like to revisit the topic building on the post that Tom Hartley wrote as a follow up to our original ones, about what might represent ‘fairness’.

Let me start out by saying that I have every sympathy with those early career researchers who feel immensely frustrated, not to mention depressed, by the current system. There are a huge number who end up being disappointed, many of whom no doubt could have thrived if only they had been given the right opportunity, and who would have given much back to the taxpayer who will have contributed to their education and training up to that point. But I still don’t like the use of the word ‘waste’ when these people are discussed, because education is (in my view) a public good, and these people – as long as they don’t end up so embittered they give up any attempt to use the skills they have learned along the way by opting out completely – are likely to continue to contribute massively to the economy in many different ways. Becoming a school teacher, a festival organiser or a freelance writer (just to name some random roles they might assume) may not equate to their dream of continuing as a bench scientist let alone a PI, but I don’t believe it amounts to a waste of their education and training.  Furthermore, if the funding system made it possible to create more permanent postdoc positions I would be absolutely delighted. These roles are invaluable for the individual and for their PI (and do exist, as far as I can see, in some STFC funded programmes). But such positions cannot solve the fundamental problem because there simply wouldn’t be money to create sufficient posts to fulfil the aspirations of all.

Tom Hartley felt that the funders – from whose point of view my earlier post was in essence written – are not really “doing the best that can be done with the money available”, or at least that he didn’t feel at all confident that this was so. He is intending to do some modelling to check this out, but I am not aware he has yet put the results out on the web. In offline comments to me he indicated that it might be much ‘fairer’ for instance, if the money was spread more widely and more thinly, so that luck played a less important role in people’s careers. So let me tackle that point of view, by raising the question of fairness for whom? This I think gets to the heart of why modelling may be so hard to make meaningful.

Suppose a fellowship competition changes its processes, so that instead of awarding 20 x 4 year fellowships it offers 40 x 2 year fellowships, will this make things fairer and more popular? No doubt it will feel so to the 20 who get a fellowship now who wouldn’t have under the earlier rules. But actually it means not one of these people will be able to take on a PhD student, or apply for most grants. The time is too short. I am aware that people currently with 3 or even 4 year fellowships worry about this shortness. Everyone wants fellowships to run for 5 years so that they have time to demonstrate that they can supervise students and win grants. So I am not convinced Tom’s suggestion on this front would actually make the postdoc population at large feel more content. Of course none of the 40 putative fellows would know whether they would have been in the 20 who would otherwise have got 4 year fellowships and so ought to feel aggrieved, or in the additional 20 who have now got something they would otherwise not have had and ought to rejoice the system had changed.

So it seems to me there are 3 measures of fairness of outcome which are likely to be incompatible. Fairness to the pool in general – which is no doubt what Jenny and Tom focus on; fairness to those who succeed in one fellowship competition and want to demonstrate how much they can go on to build on this success and generate more fantastic results; and fairness to the taxpayers who want to know their money is being wisely spent on top-notch candidates without massive associated overheads due to having an impossibly large number of applicants (with the concomitant nightmare of  heavy administration and multiple selection panels), if all eligibility criteria were removed.  The latter scenario, I will stress again as I did in my first post, would not lead to the removal of luck, it would just manifest itself in different ways.

An alternative suggestion to spread the money more evenly would be to say, if you were nearly successful in one round you were given bonus points for the next, whereas if you were successful you were totally excluded  – this is an approach that seems to be implicit in Tom’s post as a way of levelling the playing field. What this means is the truly excellent – those who do have the skills and not just luck – will be hampered to make way for others who may be less good. The bone of contention is that these others may in fact not be less good, merely less fortunate or less well-positioned.  Funders need to go on the evidence put before them, as scientists surely should. And if the evidence is made up of a mixture of luck and skill any selection panel can only go so far in disentangling the two. This is in essence the same challenge that universities have in widening access: go to the ‘right’ school, have the ‘right’ parents or happen to be lucky enough to have a brilliant teacher and life is much easier than if these things aren’t present in your life. My university works really hard to try to distinguish applicants who have been well coached but are merely solid from those who haven’t had the advantages of such preparation but are inherently smarter.  It is not such a very different problem and is equally hard to resolve.  Contextual data, as with university admissions, may or may not be readily available or usefully interpreted by selection panels trying to work out just how ‘lucky’ someone may have been.

Science is Vital have made the point to David Willetts in their submission that losing so many postdocs after many years’ experience gained because they haven’t made PI is like throwing out all teachers who don’t get to be Heads by 40. The analogy is not perfect, though, because there is far more turnover in head teachers than in Lecturers and far fewer people chasing the positions. So the supply and demand pattern is totally different. Indeed in science teaching there is a serious shortage in many subjects, such as my own of physics, so the parallel is not at all close. As long as we have a huge number of aspiring PI’s who are willing to take the risk of there being no opening of a permanent position for them in the end, the problem of the system ‘rejecting’ large numbers is bound to continue. The simple supply and demand solution would be to have fewer entering at the bottom as lowly postdocs. If there were fewer of these, there would also be more money to create permanent senior postdoc positions. Perhaps that is the logical solution to this problem, rather than homing in on the specifics of a particular fellowship scheme’s eligibility criteria. However, it isn’t clear to me that that is any fairer, since the rejection process will just occur much earlier in one’s career, where the evidence is bound to be even less concrete: how can you judge someone’s innate brilliance infallibly at the end of a PhD? That is a time when there will have been extremely limited scope to demonstrate independence of thought, leadership, originality or any of the other qualities that ultimately matter for a successful career.

So, reforming the postdoc career structure is clearly something that needs to be thought carefully about. Undoubtedly PI’s should do a better job of informing those starting out of the risks inherent in taking on a postdoc position and ensure that the skills learnt include many generic/transferable ones which the postdoc can usefully (and enjoyably) take if they leave the laboratory.  But, with finite money and far more researchers dreaming of running their own teams than positions available, it is inevitable there will be disappointments. Shaking up eligibility criteria for fellowships will never solve the fundamental problem. Nor can creating a few permanent positions, desirable though that may be; it will only create a different kind of lucky elite.

After I drafted this, I came across a  post about the pros of  multiple short-term contracts, written by Tom Webb, a postdoc who has had 4 successive 1 year positions. It provides an interesting contrast to the usual unhappiness with that aspect of the system, but it would take my own post  too far in a different direction for me to be able to address that question here.

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36 Responses to Is this an Insoluble Problem?

  1. Silvia Paracchini says:

    Everything is relative. Coming from Italy where you would not even have these many chances of applying for fellowships I think the UK are doing very well in offering relatively limited opportunities. Having been through a failed round of applications I did not feel the system was unfair; I felt I was not good enough. I made it at a second round (I just fit eligibility criteria) but really risked to be left out of the system. It is always hard to be objective and detach from personal experience, but I always knew that going for a fellowship is risky and no matter how qualified you are there will always be very good candidates around. If you make that choice you need to accept the risks. Of course the system is not perfect and will inevitably lead to loosing good scientists. One way to measure if the system is working is to see whether the ones that got fellowships indeed are successful in the long term both in science and in their career progression. If this is the case we cannot really criticise funding bodies for their choices.

    In retrospective I wish I became familiar about the systems in the very first years of my post-doc. Having a five-years post-doc position is good in a short term but does not make you think about your career. I wish I was more informed on different career paths earlier on to be aware of risks and different options. In this way people can set up goals and be less likely to be disappointed. This suggestion, which I feel is in line with this post and Jenny’s report, is not too difficult to implement and should be taken up by mentors and more formally by universities.

    • Mustafa says:

      Athene I’m amahsed to say that there’s more than a dash of Professor Last Minute in me, and I can’t really explain why. I have colleagues with equivalent workloads who get everything done in a timely fashion, I just always seem to be racing to meet deadlines even today I got a small grant proposal finished and submitted with no more than an hour to spare. Perhaps if I spent less time reading and commenting on blogs .

  2. Stephen Moss says:

    Without significant additional funding, I suspect the answer to the question you ask is yes. Assuming the discussion is focused on publicly funded research (i.e. research councils), which it has to be, I agree with you that it would make little sense to share the UK’s modest science budget among even more individuals. The UK has for decades languished behind most other developed countries in terms of %GDP spent on research, with governments of all shades knowing that our respectable world position (at least in biomedicine) is sustained only by the remarkable support we receive via the medical charities.

    I see little point in politely evading the central issue here, and would urge those that have the ear of ministers and policy makers to take every opportunity to make the case for additional science funding – at least to a level comparable to France, Germany and the USA. There are powerful economic arguments for doing so, particularly at a time when the UK is trying to dig itself out of deficit.

    At a local level, I also believe there must be scope for Universities to do more to help some of those excellent post-docs precariously hanging on to fixed term appointments in our academic departments. Across the UK universities have in recent years undergone an unprecedented expansion in admin posts, of which a significant number come with near professorial salaries. David Colquhoun has blogged many times on this subject, and whilst one cannot deny the need for administrators, one would have thought that in some instances retention of our most outstanding post-docs would represent a better use of money.

  3. cromercrox says:

    Excellent post. There’s one question I’d like to ask. In the post you suggest that one problem might be too many postdocs. It might be beyond the scope of your post, but could the problem be a step below that, that is, too many PhDs? Or, to, air a particular bugbear of mine – too many undergraduates at too many universities?

  4. How can you judge someone’s innate brilliance infallibly at the end of a PhD? That is a time when there will have been extremely limited scope to demonstrate independence of thought, leadership, originality or any of the other qualities that ultimately matter for a successful career.

    One question we might ask is why this isn’t a problem in other areas of work. Why is it that, say, in civil engineering or accountancy, there isn’t a need for people to have 10+ years of short-term experience before they are given a permanent post? In many areas of work (there are notable exceptions), permanent jobs are given to people immediately after graduation, or after a short period of professional training. Obviously, some people recruited in these processes are thrown out or relegated to a lesser job after a few years, but on the whole it works well. But we seem to be stuck with the idea that the only way to do this job well is through having some innate brilliance that doesn’t out itself until later.

    Perhaps science is genuinely different. But, we don’t seem to have the same faith in our ability to train and mentor a well-selected person to do our job as other professions do. It might be interesting to ask someone who does recruitment for, e.g., a top engineering firm “How can you be confident that, when you recruit someone after graduation, they will have the qualities that ultimately matter for a successful career in engineering?”. The answers might be enlightening.

    • Majka says:

      I doubt wehhter it’s possible to generalise. I had a late start too, but I was very lucky to live in a time when responsive mode grants were the norm. I had a series of 5 year programme grants as PI from the MRC up to the age of 68, in 2004. Thanks to wonderful folks in the lab who carried on the same sort of work I was able to carry on as co-applicant on another programme grant from 2004 -2009. Some of the best papers that I’ve ever had the good fortune to be associated with came out in 2004 and 2008 my first ever article (as opposed to letter) came out in Nature in 2008, when I was 72 (Lape, Colquhoun & Sivilotti). I don’t think one has to stop being involved in science because one reaches some arbitrary age.It’s true that it has been relatively easy for me to keep going because of my interest in the mathematics of single ion channels, and because I wrote most of the analysis programs. I don’t see much competition in that area from younger scientists. many of whom seem to think one can push buttons on commercial programs without having to understand what they do.It’s only in the last 2 or 3 years that I’ve come to wonder where science is heading. Responsive mode grants have almost vanished, and to survive it now seems to be necessary to exaggerate what you can achieve to the point of dishonesty in the hope of getting funds from some earmarked programme dreamt up by ex-scientists in Research Councils. The conditions are now such that it is almost impossible to do the sort of fundamental work that I have always enjoyed. The pressure to publish, imposed by dimwitted administrators, is threatening the honesty of the whole enterprise,Luckily for me, as my direct involvement in science has begun to wind down, I found myself in the age of the blog. And the one great advantage of being 74 is that you can say what you like about university presidents and senior administrators. There isn’t much they can do about it. At the same time public engagement’ became a buzzword (though only too often that means no more than semi-honest PR for your institution).So I have a recommendation for scientists who wish to grow old disgracefully. Start your own blog and use it to tell the truth as you see it in the hope that you’ll be able to help younger colleagues who are too frightened of retribution to defend themselves.

  5. Tom Hartley says:

    Thanks for this considered response to my post. In paragraph six, you get to the crux of my argument.

    “The bone of contention is that these others may in fact not be less good, merely less fortunate or less well-positioned.”

    The simulations I’ve been running suggest that this is almost inevitable for some excellent people who aren’t picked for funding early in their careers. This is because the evidence funders look at is not independent of earlier funding decisions, meaning the small effect of any initial good fortune is amplified at subsequent rounds. Critically, it appears that under some circumstances the *public/taxpayer* will get best results by doing as you suggest and ruling out successful applicants in round n from round n+1. These results are very preliminary – they need checking and depend on one’s assumptions regarding the level of funding, distribution of “skill” and the balance of skill and luck in decisions. I appreciate its rather frustrating to read waffly, anecdotal assertions about preliminary simulations – sorry, it turns out to be quite time-consuming, and is unlikely to contribute to my REF return! I do hope to be able to post something more detailed, soon. I think this really is the sort of work that funders perhaps ought to undertake themselves or, indeed, fund.

  6. Mike White says:

    This is a great discussion and insight. Isn’t a key issue that Universities and Research Councils need to work together better to manage early careers. Many universities are increasingly demanding that new lecturers must have previously raised research funding – ideally in the form of a 5 year research fellowship. At the same time the research councils seem to be pulling back from Fellowships. This year I believe the BBSRC appointed only 4 new David Phillips Fellows. This is considerably less than in previous years. These two trends open up dangerous gap. As this happens the problems of women in science and Interdisciplinary scientists become more and more challenging.

  7. Stephen Moss
    I’m sure Jenny individuall, Science is Vital collectively have done as much as they can to bend David Willett’s ear; the ‘success’ of the flat cash settlement for science in the CSR last year was testament to that, however much (as CaSE have pointed out) this doesn’t add up to as much as we all would like. I am sure Jenny, myself and others who will be at the upcoming meeting with Willetts specifically on postdoc careers will continue to push this point. I have little hope of a swift turn around – particularly when one notes that the Education HE white paper doesn’t even recognize research as being important in education.

    One of the reasons universities need more admin staff is because there are far more people employed, eg on short-term postdoc contracts, and the administrative burden imposed by Government to process these has massively expanded. Hence it isn’t that easy just to swap money from one heading of staff to another. I am sure you have seen how the paperwork associated with recruiting new staff has expanded, and this isn’t simply due to the desire of HR to irritate other staff, however easy it is to blame ‘them’ in the centre when sitting at the periphery of a university.

    Whereas I may not totally disagree with your sentiments, I actually don’t think they are relevant here. Those universities which are where the main expansions have been, are not the ones likely to produce the future PhD students let alone postdocs. As for the number of PhD students, I think the issue is not dissimilar to postdocs: they need to recognize the pyramidal structure ahead of them and supervisors should realise that students need to be kept informed about the whole gamut of future options and ensure appropriate broader skills are obtained simultaneous with those specifically need for the PhD project.

    I suppose the reason it isn’t entirely equivalent to accountants, in as far as I understand their careers structure, is that they fairly rapidly split into those who are likely to make partner and those who will continue to do the nitty gritty. There is a need for a substantial workforce doing the basic stuff,so implicitly the same kind of selection goes on into the high flyers and the relative ‘rejects’, but the rejects stay on in the more mundane roles or leave their firms and go and do relevant work elsewhere (eg university admin perhaps?). The latter is equivalent to postdocs going into other carreers such as teaching.

    I look forward to seeing a more detailed analysis in due course. I am not sure whether you are saying that excluding successful candidates in the next round is or isn’t good for the ‘taxpayer’ at the end of the day. I still think it depends how you measure fairness and hence on your input assumptions. I suppose the argument funders would put forward for not doing the research is that it would take money away from researchers. And, as Sylvia says, if fellows funded go on to successful careers that is probably the best one can hope for.

    Mike White
    The increasing restrictions on fellowships by the RCs is indeed worrying (talk to the mathematicians about what the EPSRC has just done on this front and you will get a tirade!). I am as much concerned by the increasing age/seniority we ask of new lecturer hires as all the other concomitant skills we expect them already to have demonstrated, because undoubtedly this makes things harder for women who want to start families. The trouble is, there will always be an excellent pool of talent on which to draw,however many hurdles we implicitly introduce. It is, in many ways, a jungle out there.

    • stephenemoss says:

      I didn’t want to give the impression that we don’t need administrators – talented administrators are a vital part of any university, and I agree that some of the expansion in admin has been a necessary response to (sometimes unnecessary) ever-increasing government legislation. However, I am not convinced of the absolute necessity of all such posts.

      And I would agree with the comments regarding some of the European career structures. During a one year sabbatical in Paris a few years ago I was astonished at the lack of motivation in so many holders of coveted permanent positions. There is no doubt though that the UK, given the level of investment in science and technology enjoyed in France, could transform the careers of those talented post-docs whose plight is central to this discussion.

  8. Catherine Reynolds says:

    Such an interesting discussion. From my position – coming to the twilight of a 39 year Research Council ‘double-headed’ career I would like to pick up on two points from the blog. The first relates to ‘failure’. Although I didn’t ‘make it’ to PI, I did have a modestly interesting career in science. But what the science career taught me is what I am GOOD at – and that’s engagement. Moving from science to ‘scicomm’ wasn’t a ‘failure’, its been hugely more useful to GB plc. And I do wish that, at all levels starting at U/G we could support our young people to understand that having a science background and training adds substantial value to work in a very wide range of professional fields. The second is to comment on a word that Athene uses. ‘Administration’. I would urge all of us that use this term to do so circumspectly and limited to those who specifically provide an administrative service. For example in the HR function, I might categorise the work done to set up an interview series as ‘administration’ but not the advice provide by the HR adviser. The people that support our science (like me) are professionals in their own right and have often undergone extensive training over a long period. I’d like to see more trained scientists taking up roles in HR and other support areas – but we need to promote this job-destination, not consign it to the scrap-heap (sic – not my view!) that is ‘admin.’ …

  9. There are so many interesting and important points in here, and in the great comments, that I literally don’t know where to start. But I’ll just make the general point that I think this debate is incredibly important -as, arguably, the most important (economic) impact of our science spending comes not so much from the specific new knowledge produced but from the ‘human capital’ produced… There are multiple interests here – those of those governing the UK research ‘system’, those running research institutions, those leading research groups, and those with careers on the line (and their families). The issue is different and the impacts/issues are different for these different groups – and change over time. One thing I would say is that the competitive grants based funding system in the UK has been instrumental in creating a flexible labour market (hate that term, so loaded) for scientists which has worked to attract in excellent researchers from other places with less flexible scientific labour markets. The downsides of repeat short-term contracts etc. are the flip side of that coin. Still tough if you are on the receiving end of the downside, however.

    Presumably none of us want to emulate the sclerotic scientific labour markets of some of our European neighbours, so the question is can we achieve some kind of middle way, and how do we balance all the competing interests discussed above?

  10. Stephen says:

    As others have said there are very many interesting things coming out of this discussion — which was one of the aims of the effort put in to running the survey and producing the report. There are no ready solutions, which makes it all the more important that those interested in how UK science is run think about the critical question of science careers.

    To return to the comment Athene has made about the teacher analogy, the point there was that teachers who don’t make it to a head-ship can still stay in the classroom and teach. But scientists who don’t make it to PI level, yet still have the talent and experience to make a real contribution, find it increasingly difficult to remain in employment as scientists and are forced to find alternative employment. The analogy was never meant to be perfect but just to highlight this anomaly.

    I agree that the question of competition will never go away, especially if the UK wants to maintain its standards, but rather we wanted to focus on the issue of whether we have the balance right. In part the solution is to constrain entry — not by rejecting people after a PhD but rather my making sure that those considering entering on one or entering their first postdoc think very carefully about why they are doing so and consider the ramifications for their future. I have no idea of numbers but I imagine there are *some* who drift into this line a tad naively and end up frustrated several years down the line when their career in science runs aground. Those people can be helped with better careers advice at the outset.

    But the cohort I am more concerned about are those who have thought hard about getting into science, worked productively through a couple of postdoctoral stints but still not made it to PI level. Why should it be so hard for them to find gainful employment at the bench where their skills can be put to good use? Long-term support for a number — necessarily finite — of such positions would, I think, generate great efficiencies by retaining experience and providing research groups with some relief from the turbulence of short-term funding. For sure, this raises a difficult question about the allocation of limited funds (there is no money on the table at the moment — which is why we did not make it a central issue in the report or with Willetts).

    And, inevitably, as Kieron has pointed out there is the real or perceived danger of erring to some European models where job security has been bought at the cost of reduced scientific quality. Where is the right balance? I don’t know for sure but my feeling is that the present scenario isn’t where we want to be.

  11. Catherine – I take your point about the use of the word admin. It covers many functions and I certainly didn’t intend it to mean merely clerical. It is just the way it’s lumped together as a function. In my university wee have all kinds of people sitting in the centre, with many different backgrounds. Their email address domain is .admin so that’s how I think about them. Some of them are scientists as you say. They do sterling work but collectively they also requier a lot of form filling, frequently simply to make us legally compliant in some way or other. I clearly agree with your point about people being educated and trained (not the same thing) in ways that make them hugely important for the economy but which may not equate to ‘bench scientist’ or PI.

    Kieron – this question you articulate is indeed central. The French CNRS system is one example of what you term ‘sclerotic’ labour market, where people are appointed young and for life and without proper resourcing. For many people it leads to what I think of as fossilisation and provides security but not stimulation. ( I don’t think the French system has postdocs in at all the same way as the UK.). I would hate to see the UK head that way which may, for all I know, actually also be a way of promulgating ‘luck’ such as whether you were able to afford to go to a Grande Ecole (in the sense of being able to take 2 years to get to the requisite standard for admission) or had the right supervisor. It seems to be an example of providing security at an early age without really being able to assess people. Your point implies there are other European systems which may fit this model, but this is the one I’m most familar with.

    As you correctly say there are multiple interests here – which is why I think Tom’s modelling is so complex and to some extent must depend on how you weight ‘fair’ for the different parties. Maybe this roundtable with David Willetts and Paul Nurse on October 26th is one way of progressing things a tad, because I don’t believe the weighty formality of the Concordat achieves this. But I suspect it is going to be a long and painful progression, even if ultimately some headway can be made in making the postdocs lot a little less uncertain and uncomfortable. If, from a policy point of view, you have any suggestions I hope you’ll feed them in to this dialogue.

  12. Stephen
    I still think, despite the anecdotal information Jenny cited in her response to my comment on her post about the report to Willetts, that the biomedical field raises more issues for senior postdocs than other disciplines. For chemists and physicists (and I think engineers) there are far fewer early stage fellowships which may then lead to the frustrating outcome you describe (although I would say again, leaving bench science offers many real opportunities and is not just a ‘waste). So people on the physical sciences are less likely to find themselves incredibly senior but position-less, though a substantial number still do. Indeed, as the report I discussed previously about a survey of chemistry and physics postdocs shows, there are even significant differences between experiences in chemistry and physics. One of the reasons that I believe biomedical areas see the problem in a more acute form is that there is very substantial funding coming in for these early career researchers from sources such as Wellcome. The opportunities open to experienced postdocs in fields covered by these charities are not open to physicists and mathematicians, who have few places to turn beyond EPSRC and the Royal Society. It is less likely people will stay on as ‘merely’ a postdoc on a grant, year after year, and people may therefore of necessity look elsewhere earlier. I am not saying this is either a good thing or a bad, but I do think it is important to explore the implications in the different fields. If the problems are due to the more widely available charity funding in some arenas, then one can’t expect Willetts to be very helpful or necessarily interested.

    That is not to say there isn’t a fundamental problem. There is. Making sure people understand what an uncertain career trajectory they may be embarking on as they start their first position, or even as they apply for it at the end of a PhD, is clearly a good place to start, but it will never be sufficient.

  13. Tom Hartley (@tom_hartley) says:

    I think Stephen 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.

    The issue of fairness is a different one. It is not really about making the individuals feel that they have been fairly treated, although this is clearly desirable. We need to ensure that fellowships go to the most capable scientists because anything else is poor value for money. Any initially unavoidable unfairness (e.g., the fellowship is awarded to the second best candidate by chance) can be amplified and entrenched as the successful candidate has an advantage in the next round and so on. The funders should really look at this issue, because if the second best candidate (who may well be excellent) wins over and over again, they are nonetheless wasting the talent of the best candidate, and the overall productivity is reduced. It is at least plausible that by favouring narrowly unsuccessful candidates on subsequent rounds, the best candidates will be selected more often and the overall productivity will be increased. Properly understanding (e.g., through modelling) how funding decisions could be optimised – based on evidence, rather than intuition – is likely to save money in the long run.

    • Austin says:

      I think the first paragraph of Tom’s comment really hits the nail on the head. I started writing a response, but it got so long I have hived it off to be a blogpost. Anyway, it is absolutely clear that the system as presently constituted is grim for serial postdocs (i.e. ones who ‘fall over the edge’) and also unhelpful for the PIs who employ them.

  14. Anonymous says:

    (this question may be directed more at Jenny than Athene)

    If we tried to create permanent post-docs (PPD), how this position would fit into the ecosystem of a university department with many PIs who also have teaching/admin duties? Would the PPD work for just one PI? What would happen if that PI retired or moved? If no one else used the same method, the PPD might be forced out of a job at a still later age.

    And would other PIs be short-changed by not having the support of a PPD in their lab? I doubt any university could afford one PPD for every PI. Alternatively, would the PPD be fully independent, not tied to one lab and able to apply for her own grants? In which case, the position is effectively a fellowship.

    I don’t know how to answer these questions, and that makes me think that at least in my (non-biomed) field, a PPD route is not a viable option. I do very much sympathise with those stuck in a post-doc trap, but I think we need to look for other ways to solve the problem.

    An option I would favour is more coordination to make sure people don’t get caught between fellowships (e.g. too old to apply for one, too junior for another) or get caught out by sudden changes in the rules. If everyone has had a chance to apply for one or two fellowships, those who were unsuccessful can at least feel “I tried, I didn’t make it, I’ll look for something else” rather than not getting the chance to even try.

    • Tristan says:

      Excellent post as always.Here’s what I think: Since enreythivg boils down to one’s choices, perhaps it is important to influence the choices of women in science. One can do this by increasing women’s awareness of how science works and bringing to their attention the struggles of successful women who have gone around “obstacles” they found on their way. Knowledge of their options and information about how to navigate complex situations involving their decisions to continue or drop-out of science would go a long way in helping other women not give up on science easily. Sometimes, all one needs is perspective and it is weird where one can find it.Perhaps at your institute, you can initiate a forum for discussion, where women scientists, young and old, talk about how they got into science and why they continued in it. I guess it will unfold tales of surprising struggles and probably lead to an awareness of the issues women face and also the key influences they had in their career. Perhaps also include talks by men scientists about how they got into and stayed in science. I guess it will attract quite an audience and will be very inspiring to all.Just hearing about the lives of women who made it and “seeing” that none of them are “superwomen” but just women who happened to make the right choices, who looked for and got support from the right places, would make those choices more realistic and not so hard to implement in one’s own life. After all, research is an unforgiving and highly demanding profession, and many times, it is one’s passion for it that takes one that far. I guess a reason many women drop out of science later in life as it gets more competitive is probably because they realize that they don’t want to be “losers”, and at the moment in their life they fear they might not have it all to fight a fair fight. So giving up is a better option, because you don’t technically lose if you chose not to fight… And all such women probably need is just a slight push to try just once more and maybe they would make it. After all, these women are as intelligent and trained as any man-scientist at a similar level in their career.So to sum it up, please try to increase the awareness level of women scientists about practical problems they will face in their career, so that they can make realistic and informed choices that would ultimately increase their chances of becoming successful.

  15. BB says:

    I still disagree that widening the remit for fellowship applications should lead to more paperwork. I am under the impression that as with grants you can rapidly assign either great, average or hopeless. Given current funding levels you need only look in detail at the great subsection. If you are correct in that no or very few high quality candidates are being rules out by your application criteria then opening up those criteria should do nothing to your work load. I am still in shock that panels appear to be ranking ALL of the grant applications rather than broadly categorising the ones that come nowhere near to funding. What a waste of time.

    Regarding deciding which of the great candidates are actually the best people/grants I think we should be more willing to admit that it may be impossible to tell which person/grant will be the best value for money in the long run. If we cannot prove that our decision making process is actually producing the correct conclusions then we should cease using it and either investigate a new one or start drawing lots.

    Finally wrt making life bearable for post docs I would like to raise the issue of maternity/paternity leave. This is a total mess in almost all cases. Even if the postdoc funding window can be moved in order to allow leave there is no provision for paying above statutory. There is a huge discrepancy between how postdocs are treated and PIs (or indeed any other permanent members of the university). Post docs are highly trained professional individuals and they are being treated very badly.

  16. One thing that has not come up yet in the above thread (unless I missed it, sorry) is that it’s all very well and good to romanticize the mature postdoc who comes to the end of the line and has to leave research to start a new career, thereby enriching his own life and society, but in actual fact, it is not always so easy for a highly overqualified 40-something person to get a job interview. I struggled myself with this when I was made redundant from a biotech bankruptcy, and I was only 36. After each of my approximately 40 failed attempts to get into entry level positions in publishing, science communication, broadcasting, museums, teaching outreach and other fields that would probably have benefited from my scientific experience, I would call up the HR in question and ask to speak to the people who did not shortlist me.

    Some of the reasons I was given included:

    A) “You have 13 years of research experience, that’s way too much for this job.”
    B) “We couldn’t afford to pay what your experience is worth.”
    C) (After saying I’d be willing to take a 50% pay cut) “Even so, we’d worry that you’d soon grow restless and move on.”
    D) “We were just hoping for candidates who were a little more…youthful.”

    If people who are not cut out for research didn’t enter into a long-term postdoctoral holding pattern but instead bailed out when they were younger, it would be far easier for them, and it would ease up the resources for the rest. It’s a win/win. This is why I believe Stephen’s point about ensuring that young people get the right advice is key. A few more permanent posts would be good for science, but reducing the pool in a positive and productive method would make a bigger difference. Personally, I advocate both, but it’s a point for larger discussion.

    Two other minor points –
    1. Athene, we still need to know if the per capita number of fellowships is really that different for life vs physical sciences. I take your word that the physical sciences have fewer fellowships on offer, but there might be correspondingly fewer people vying for them. I just don’t know and I’d like to see the numbers so we at SiV can take a look. I haven’t been able to find them – any hints where I can get them?

    2. The system of having permanent postdocs can work very well; they are more common in America and they are an amazing resource for the departments that house them – I shared a lab with one, and he was a lead-author publishing powerhouse who also trained all the PhD students and kept all the specialized techniques and lab lore alive. It must be possible to arrange for their presence more regularly if it can happen in a mainstream research environment like that in the US, surely. They’ve been around a long time, even in the days when there wasn’t as much money in the system. I think it’s just allocated slightly differently. The US PDRA might be able to tell us more about it.

  17. There are an awful lot of scientists out of the university system, quite a few of them even do science! Postdoctoral workers are valuable outside the university system, not necessarily from the point of view of the science they know but the skills that go with that. However the university sector does not do an impression of a caring employer interested in developing their skills and careers. Perhaps this is because the system is a hybrid of a very big business (a university, or system of universities) and a small business (the research group of a single PI).

    One of the problems I see in the system is that things get coupled together in the university sector without any explicit recognition of the coupling: they are the number of undergraduates, the amount of funding available for grant applications, the number of people required to feed those grants (postdocs) and the number of PIs/lecturers. If you have an aim of increasing the number of undergraduates, you increase the number of PIs/lecturers but that produces more pressure on the grant system (and an increase in demand for postdocs) but as was pointed out in the report one PI needs far more than “replacement” numbers of postdocs.

    The other thing I see is a system in which post longevity has two peaks – one at the length of a postdoc position (2-3 years) and the other at life or at least until retirement. I have a position in industrial research which I reckon on having a half-life of about 5 years – I’m seven years in.

  18. BB
    I think it is not that easy or swift to do the sift you refer to. Usually someone first of all has to take a look at eligibility, and that can be time consuming at the admin level; then a preliminary sift is done, possibly before references are taken up. But, in the case of RS paperwork that I am most familiar with, even to get to that stage the head of department and a personal referee have had to upload reports before any panel member sees it (so pity the head of large departments at fellowship submission time). Even if the proposal is short, panel members will spend a minimum of 15-20 minutes reading and pondering and, if the proposal is good, nominating further referees. This time rapidly mounts up. So I cannot agree with you that opening the remit up would not become a problem in itself. It is very much the same as marking huge numbers of exam scripts. You start off being efficient with a clear brain, and you end up having to take frequent breaks just to keep yourself able to concentrate.

    I also reiterate the point I made in my original ,post, finding the unique, ‘best’ candidate is almost certainly impossible; finding candidates who are really strong is straightforward and drawing lots would not achieve even that!

    Maternity/paternity leave is indeed a mess and needs a lot more thought….some of us keep trying to put pressure on funders locally and nationally….

    One would like to think equality laws would prevent the ageism you describe, but it can be hidden in so many ways that it often needn’t be presented that explicitly. But there are jobs where experience is valued, just not as many as perhaps one might expect.
    I will have a think about the stats you ask for. I suspect it may have to be a case of piecing together lots of evidence, but perhaps the professional bodies (RSC, IOP) may have some relevant stuff. Anyone else know?

    It’s good to get the voice from industry, and from someone who dipped his toe once in the academic water. Things are indeed not joined up. No one looks at the whole pipeline coherently to see whether it joins up sensibly. But I think you are wrong about careers’ advice, at least in some cases. The so-called ‘Roberts’ money explicitly created opportunities to provide transferable skills and careers’ advice for postdocs. In my university two posts were created in the careers service, one for an advisor in physical sciences, one in biological, and they are still going strong – and much valued – though the money has dried up. Everyone I know who has used them has been tremendously impressed with them, and they give frequent talks etc to help illuminate the landscape.

    • BB says:

      Did you mean to say that finding the really strong candidates is easy? If you did then my proposal was that you draw lots from within the strong candidate subset. Not that you just draw lots from everyone who met the entry requirement.

      I really feel that there is a more efficient approach here. Coarse graining rapidly (ish) to a point and then admitting defeat on being able to accurately determine the absolute winner and letting chance do the work.

      • BB I still feel there would be howls of protest if a panel said: we whittled things down to a final list of 15 and then drew lots to award 5 fellowships.Panels do try awfully hard to get it right, but I think we have to accept that there will always be an element of luck as this and my earlier post – and indeed Jenny’s – make clear. But that really isn’t tantamount to saying let’s give up trying to select the best and just rely on blind chance.

        • BB says:

          I know there would be howls of protest, and I certainly know that panels are trying. But if we cannot demonstrate that the effort produces a better result than chance, then I don’t see how we can justify the waste of resource that results from tying up brilliant scientists in endless panel meetings…..

  19. Irene Hames says:

    Really interesting discussion, and I’d just like to offer a perspective from someone who moved into scientific publishing after a PhD (cell biology) and now takes part regularly in career sessions for early-career researchers – talking about publishing as a career, my specific (30-year) career, and the various opportunities it’s provided along the way.

    I echo Catherine’s point about the importance of ensuring understanding that having a science background and training can add real value in a wide range of professional fields. Like you, Athene, I don’t like the word ‘waste’ being used for those early-career researchers who don’t (for whatever reason) end up in research careers, and agree that they “are likely to contribute massively to the economy in many different ways”. I always make it a point to stress that pursuing a career outside of research isn’t a waste, and those individuals who make the move shouldn’t ever be made to feel they have, in any way, failed.

    Jenny has made a very valuable observation:
    “If people who are not cut out for research didn’t enter into a long-term postdoctoral holding pattern but instead bailed out when they were younger, it would be far easier for them, and it would ease up the resources for the rest. It’s a win/win. This is why I believe Stephen’s point about ensuring that young people get the right advice is key.”

    In my experience, a considerable number of early-career researchers know they don’t want to pursue a career in research but get swept along that track. Partly because they don’t know what the alternatives are – I hear this often – or how to go about pursuing opportunities in areas they think might suit them. Unfortunately, not all receive good or appropriate advice about alternative careers. The word ‘waste‘ is used – sometimes very directly and derisively – when they express interest in pursuing careers outside academic research. In some cases they are written off by their supervisor/’mentor’ and side-lined.

    Some universities/departments do provide good careers advice and opportunities to acquire transferable skills – Roberts money has been very important in providing the resources for this. Concerns at the ending of this funding were voiced in the recent peer-review inquiry by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (declaration: I was the specialist adviser to the Committee; Assurances were received from RCUK that the amount given to universities for training and developing post-graduate research will increase and will include components to replace part of the Roberts funding (e.g. see Q 259 and 260, and para124). Further details were requested on how this would be ‘joined up’ across the various research funders. The Government response to the report and recommendations is to be published on Tuesday (18 Oct). The inquiry report and imminent Government response may be relevant to the issues raised by Science is Vital and the discussions you’ll be having later this month at the Royal Society.

    • Irene Thanks very much. Maybe Staff Training for new PIs should make more explicit their responsibilities for postdocs they hire. Could you post a link to the response on Tuesday, so we can see what they are prepared to do in advance of the upcoming Royal Society meeting please?

      • Anderson says:

        You’re not takling about another Steve of our mutual acquaintance, are you, Stephen?Professor to technician is a bit unusual though I know that David Colquhoun is employed on the lab programme grant as a postdoc. Actually I sometimes think he does that mainly to get the ridiculous PR bulletins the UCL bosses send out to the research contract staff.My father retired from the Open University at age 65 and then went on working as a part-time (paid!) Senior Research Fellow at Cardiff into his mid-70s. I can also think of a fair few senior academics who have taken the pay-off and then taken part-time University teaching posts in sunnier climes e.g. I know one recent Leeds retiree who is now teaching physiology in Trinidad. Though not all chose to keep doing science or academia another ex-academic ion channel person I know is now working as a fishing guide.Speaking for myself, the problem with the kind of path Athene outlines is that it relies upon the University thinking you are worth keeping in a job. It may be OK at Professorial levels, but lower down the ladder it is a bit tenuous.I guess I would call my current activity profile something like 60% teaching and associated admin, 30% various external affairs things, and a (generous) 10% research. But the way many Universities would look at this, the research and the external stuff earn no grant money or other income and hence in the current economic climate they do not exist. So from their perspective I may be a luxury item that does not pay its way. In the UK, of course, we have academic jobs on a permanent contract but we do not quite have US style tenure. So how secure is my job? The answer, I think, is not very . And at just shy of fifty and with young kids I cannot afford to retire any time soon.

  20. Irene Hames says:

    Yes, happy to post the link to the response on Tuesday – it’s going to be published at 11am.

  21. Irene Hames says:

    Government and RCUK responses to peer-review inquiry report:
    10th Special Report, HC 1535


    Pdf at

    Relevant bit copied here, from RCUK response, Appendix 2:

    Recommendation 11: Training for early-career researchers is important. We note that
    “Roberts Funding” is coming to an end and that the Research Councils will therefore be
    increasing the amount they give to universities “for training and developing
    postgraduate research”. We invite the Research Councils to set out further details of
    how and where this money will be allocated and what proportion of it will be dedicated
    to training in peer review, including academic writing and publication ethics (discussed
    later in this report). We also ask for further details of how this will be “joined up” across
    different research funders. (Paragraph 124)

    Roberts Funding is the common term used to refer to the funding which Research
    Councils provided to universities and other research organisations to support
    employability and career planning for postgraduates and research staff, following the
    recommendations of the report by Professor Sir Gareth Roberts in 2002, SET for Success.
    The funding was not intended to support training in the skills and expertise needed for
    careers within academia, such as training in peer review or academic writing, but rather to
    help PhD students and research staff to develop and enhance the transferability of their
    research training to other areas of society and the economy. The report correctly states that
    the Roberts Funding as a ring-fenced funding stream has now finished, and that the
    funding has been built into normal funding mechanisms, such as student tuition fees.
    Universities have made good progress in embedding Researcher Development into the
    research and training environment. To assist universities in this endeavour, the Research
    Councils fund a programme, Vitae, to work with institutions to develop their training and
    share good practice.
    It is common for the supervisors of both PhD students and postdoctoral researchers to
    develop peer review skills as an important area of academic practice through, for example,
    consulting them for views on papers which they have been sent for peer review. Vitae has
    produced a Researcher Development Framework which highlights the importance of such
    skills (see Research
    Councils UK have endorsed this approach through supporting the Researcher
    Development Statement (
    Development-Statement-RDS.html). This is also supported by over 30 other sector
    organisations (

    • Tom Hartley says:

      My impression is that while Roberts spending has been monitored, outcomes have not. I’d be glad to be proved wrong on this. If I am right, it is not a very smart way to give people money – any fool can spend money!

  22. Tom
    What sort of outcomes do you want measured? As you see above, Vitae has a lot of information not only about what is provided, but also how people responded. Take a look at the reports here and here for more information. But it may not be what you had in mind.

    The second report also has figures (Table 1.3) which appear to show that the percentage of all (domiciled) doctorates awarded in different disciplines. This shows there are 35.2% in physical sciences and 33.6% in biology and biomedical sciences. It isn’t quite the same as the answer to the question you posed,but does imply that the starting-out postdoctoral candidates are comparable in physical and biological sciences. Given that there are undoubtedly more charity funded fellowships in biology/biomedical sciences than in physical sciences, I stand by my earlier comments.

  23. Thanks, Athene. We still don’t know if the same number of bio vs physical science PhDs embark into the academic postdoctoral stream (the only thing we know from the Royal Society flowchart is that 70% of PhDs peel off at that point into non-science jobs and industrial research, but not how they are broken down). So my actual question remains unanswered, but I’ll keep looking and will let you know if I find anything.

    • Jenny, I think I’ve found some of those numbers now too in the same Vitae report (Table 4.3). It shows that, 3 years after obtaining their PhD, in 2008 there were 60 postdocs in HE research occupations in biological sciences, 94 in biomedical sciences and 104 in physical sciences and engineering. You probably know better than me what the additional numbers of fellowships are in the biological and biomedical sciences from Wellcome and other charities (and of course there may not be equal numbers from research councils on the two sides). So it may be possible to check out the relative numbers of fellowships per postdoc (with 3 years experience, which may of course not be the ideal figure) on the two sides. If they do come out as comparable, we then also need to know whether they are chasing the same number of potential openings in permanent positions.

      My contention was that the increased number of fellowships on the biological/biomedical side meant the problems of what happens at the end of that, and the feelings that there ought to be a viable career path, make the supply problems harder and more acute for your field than mine. I suspect more of the steady-as-she-goes type of postdoc leave HE research earlier in physical sciences, but that remains a hunch, because only the most determined and brilliant feel it is worth sticking around with the relatively low numbers of fellowships available. I’m sure most people don’t sit down and calculate the odds explicitly.

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