Careering out of control

As Jenny mentioned this morning, I have a post on the Science is Vital campaign on science careers on the Times Eureka blog today. For those of you without a subscription, the text is reproduced here:

The business of science is essentially one of creative problem solving. But there is a problem within science that has long resisted resolution: how to forge a satisfying career that is rewarded in proportion to the long years of professional training.

The traditional career path consists of a science degree followed by a PhD (the first real taste of independent research), and then further training through a couple of stints as a postdoctoral researcher before a scientist can become established as a fully independent investigator.

Most people only start out on that track because they are passionate about science. Because of that commitment they endure relatively low pay, long hours in the lab and the uncertainty that comes with working on fixed-term contracts. Some will ‘make it’ by landing a permanent position as a research group leader in academia or industry. But for too many young scientists, the dream of a career in science breaks apart when, after a series of short-term postdoctoral contracts, they are unable to secure a permanent job. In some of these cases, the departure from science is a necessary part of the competitive winnowing that keeps the UK scientific stock strong. But for others, as they grow older and become more expensive to hire on short-term, cash-limited grants, they suffer the frustration of seeing their research experience work against them as they are priced out of the workplace by the fresh influx of new PhDs. This forcible ejection of highly-trained and productive talent is a shocking waste.

The downsides of the traditional science career model have long been recognised — and were identified by the Roberts Report back in 2002. But little has been done to address these difficulties and the present slow decay of the science budget, which is shrinking job opportunities, means that they are being felt more intensely. The system is reaching breaking point.

To renew the search for solutions and, in particular to bring to the fore the voice of those most affected — early career scientists — the campaigning group Science is Vital organised an open meeting at the Royal Institution in London in May of this year that allowed young scientists to put their views directly to Mr David Willetts, Minister of State for Science and Universities. The audience had plenty to say and, to his credit, Mr Willetts participated with palpable interest. He asked Science is Vital to prepare a report summarizing the issues raised.

We were happy to do so but, as a quintessentially grass-roots organization, we recognised that the RI event had only really been open to Londoners, and so issued a nationwide call for people to share their experiences of working in science and to suggest solutions.

The response was staggering: we gathered submissions — nearly 700 in all — from scientists at all career stages from all corners of the UK, detailing a host of problems. We captured stories of highly trained and motivated people who live every day with job insecurity, who are unable to get mortgages or proper access to maternity benefits, of people driven abroad because of lack of opportunities, of women and men hurting because the career that they love exacts such high costs from their partners and spouses.

Some of that raw feeling is captured in anonymised comments quoted in the summary report, “Careering out of Control: A Crisis in the UK Science Profession”, that was published yesterday. That short document cannot properly do justice to the scale of the problem, but hopefully contains the seeds of a solution.

The career frustrations in science are increasingly recognised by senior scientists — who are only too aware of the inefficiencies engrained in a system that relentlessly demands new talent but does a poor job of enabling experienced people to remain productive throughout their careers. Several respondents at this level felt they could no longer recommend science as a viable career to younger people. And that message is now being picked up by PhD students, who will hesitate more and more before launching on a career. For some, that pause for thought will be no bad thing, allowing them to weigh their options more carefully and perhaps choose an alternative path to exploit their scientific training. But there is also a real risk that if too many are put off by poor career prospects, the life-blood of UK science will drain away.

These problems require urgent attention.  Yesterday, members of the Science is Vital executive had the opportunity to present the report directly to Mr Willetts and to relay the most important concerns. However, we recognize that this is not a problem that can be solved by ministerial writ. It will require participation of all interested parties: government, funding agencies, universities, industry and the scientific community. Thanks to our meeting yesterday Science is Vital has secured a seat at a round table discussion on science careers that will be hosted by Sir Paul Nurse at the Royal Society in October, which Mr Willetts will attend. That will only be a beginning — or more accurately a re-start — of the process of solving the careers crisis in science. But we aim make sure that the voices and ideas of young scientists are heard at that table.

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