In which we lay hands on an oil tanker

Many of you have probably heard about the Science Careers campaign that we at Science Is Vital are currently running – which is also the reason I have not blogged for a few weeks. I’m a little in shock right now because I appear to have just obtained a full eight hours of sleep: I’d forgotten how that feels. (Since I’d also like to refresh my memory about the concept of a sit-down breakfast, I’ll just give you the brief highlights now.)

Suited and booted outside BIS (photo: S. Curry)
Suited and booted outside BIS (photo: S. Curry)

Phase I began back in May with a public discussion at the Royal Institution with a panel including the Science Minister, David Willetts. There, we talked about all the ways that the science career structure might be damaging UK science – and the lives of UK scientists. Mr Willetts asked us to put together a summary. So Phase II – a call for evidence and broader consultation – took place in the month of September. We (and a number of kind volunteers) analyzed the data as quickly as we could, and produced yesterday’s report: Careering Out of Control: A Crisis in the UK Science Profession? I’ve written up an account for the Guardian; there’s some nice coverage in the Times Higher as well; Nature is running something next week, OT’s own Stephen Curry will have a blog in the Times, and Lewis Dartnell is penning something for The New Scientist, so keep an eye out.

Yesterday afternoon, Mr Willetts and his team met with us for thirty minutes to discuss the report, in what was a very productive meeting. As a result, I was invited to meet him again in a roundtable discussion convened by Paul Nurse at the Royal Society on this very issue at the end of the month. We are very pleased with this outcome, because one of our recommendations was that younger scientists, and the voices of researchers with more diverse, and perhaps not as successful, experiences be included in any discussions on career structure. I will do my best to help represent and transmit the ideas, experiences and emotions of the 700+ scientists who passionately spoke out in our various consultations over the past half year.

Yes, it’s an oil tanker, and one running at a decent clip. The way scientific careers are discharged has solidified over many years of custom and practice. The money for science is frozen for the foreseeable future, which means that any changes would require reallocation of current funds. Also, the problem has been going on for some time, and many of these ideas have been discussed before to little apparent effect. Nevertheless, I think it’s never too late to try to change something that seems wrong. Working together, and assuming that change is possible, we may be able to improve the lot of working scientists in the UK – and help protect the underpinnings of our world-class research base. And as Stephen pointed out on Twitter, perhaps an improved model here could inspire other countries to take a harder look at their own situations.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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9 Responses to In which we lay hands on an oil tanker

  1. rpg says:

    I just hope the oil tanker metaphor doesn’t, um, run aground.

  2. I look forward to continuing to participate in this debate – see you at the Royal Society on the 26th! By which time I will have thoroughly studied your report which I’ve just printed out.

    Something that came out during the RI debate that perhaps you and I both, plus others, must make more explicit is that the situation is somewhat different on your biological/biomedical side from mine on the physical sciences. There are many more funders (charities) to fund early career researchers in your area than in mine, and that probably makes the spiked structure you describe (which I might call a delta function) much worse – although it may be tougher sooner to get onto even the first rung of the ladder for physicists, chemists etc. So it isn’t a uniform picture.

  3. ricardipus says:

    Once again – well done you lot. I read the report yesterday and it is (a) readable, and (b) concise, two features often lacking in this kind of thing.

    Note for the future, regarding the (very nice) Guardian piece – international readers will be highly confused by the use of the term “swingeing” (I had to look it up, initially thinking it to be some kind of typo – and I’m more anglo than most on this side of the pond).

  4. chall says:

    It’s impressive! Good luck on the round table discussion, which is a really good continuing.

    I’m looking forward reading the report (have looked but not had time to fully read yet). And as you said, it would be – at least from my perspective – good to have an inproved model to take some inspiration from and start changing it ‘back home’ too.

  5. Yes, Athene, I’m looking forward to the 26th as well.

    We didn’t differentiate among disciplines in our report because in our responses, the key messages were coming from across all fields – maths, physics, astronomy, biology, clinical research, the works. Of those who identified their specific fields, people struggling to get ahead seemed to be equally split between the physical and the life sciences. The excess of funding for biology might be neutralized by concommitant larger numbers of people in the pool overall – I don’t know ‘per capita’ how much difference there is. It would be good to have better numbers.

  6. cromercrox says:

    Is that a copy of Your Favourite Weekly Science Magazine Beginning With N you’re packing, or are you just pleased to see me?

  7. rpg says:

    Indeed it is: the copy I’m quoted in, no less.

    I liked your (I guess it was yours, anyway) editorial on Futures.

  8. cromercrox says:

    Thanks. Don’t tell a soul. Shhhh.

  9. ScienceGeekess says:

    It is very unfortunate but we are heading in the same direction (Canada)… very sad and short sighted!

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