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Oct 16 2011

Science is Vital – careers edition

I thought I would provide some comments on the Science Is Vital report “Careering Out of Control: A crisis in the UK science profession?“.

The report focuses on the career structure for academics with particular reference to postdoctoral workers. Postdoctoral workers are usually funded out of grant applications made by principle investigators (PIs) who are typically university lecturers. The postdoc will have a 2-3 year contract which lasts the length of the project proposed in the grant application. Lecturers typically work in groups which will make some attempt to find another temporary position for a good postdoc, however this is a tricky process which requires grant applications to be won to order. Therefore the postdoctoral position is insecure and can go on for many years until the postdoc becomes too expensive to employ.

I write this as someone who did a PhD in Physical Chemistry at Durham University, a postdoc at the Cavendish Laboratory, followed by an assistant director of research position (like a research fellowship, with the ability to make grant applications) and finally, in academia, a lectureship at UMIST in the Department of Physics. Since 2004 I have worked as a scientist for a large home and personal care company in north west England – the opinions here are my own and do not represent the views of any of my employers, past or present. As such it is a different viewpoint from the core Science Is Vital team but it is personal and based on relatively brief experience of one type of non-university employer over a relatively short period of time.

First I’d like to highlight what I think is good about the report, and indeed the Science Is Vital campaign. The report highlights what is a long-standing and serious problem in the university sector, and it does so on the basis of substantial data set. It makes some proposals to address these shortcomings. More widely I believe that “Science Is Vital” to the UK as a nation, for both its economic and social well-being. I see a UK whose citizens and businesses know more of science and engage more with science as a more successful UK.

The report proposes  a couple of mechanisms for easing the way for postdoctoral workers around creating more permanent posts and opening up grant applications. Although neither of these are unreasonable ideas there are downsides with both. Recruiting and managing permanent staff requires a different approach to making short-term appointments: if you get it wrong you are lumbered with someone and when you take them on you have to be prepared to keep them for the duration. This means that in an organisation with limited income (i.e. any organisation) you will regularly undergo recruitment freezes and you will only recruit if you believe the person you are interviewing is absolutely the right person, if they aren’t you don’t recruit. “Permanence” does help provide a career structure but it isn’t everything, people expect to progress in their careers (typically with a focus on cash) but a company will be looking to get more for more pay – more responsibility for line management, more responsibility for budget and so forth.

As an aside, the academic sector seems to support two populations in position longevity: 2-3 years and life. As a guide I believe my career with my current employer has a half-life of 5 years.

As for the second mechanism: the grant application system is already creaking at the seams with abysmal success rates and controversial measures which block people who have had multiple applications fail from re-applying for a period, so opening it up to a further cohort of potential applicants without increasing the size of the pot would be troublesome.

For me the central problem in the university system is that the numbers of lecturers (teachers), principle investigators, PhD students, postdoctoral workers and available grant funding in the university system are implicitly coupled but I’ve never seen any indication that impacts of changes across these areas are planned i.e. if you decide to increase undergraduate numbers then there is a knock-on effect on applications to funding bodies because you employ more lecturers/principle investigators who will apply for grants. The removal of the distinction between polytechnic and university was another great shift which opened up grants to a wider audience but without necessarily increasing the size of the grant funding pot. I think it’s fair to say that beyond the level of PhD an overwhelming majority of people in the system are looking for a permanent position in the university sector, and there simply aren’t the places to support this.

Perhaps the great unrecognised area is that the key impact of research in the university sector is not the science done but the people that do the science. Scientific papers in the open literature are useful but from a commercial point of view they are less valuable then, for example, a patent or a person who can create proprietary knowledge for a company. PhD students are explicitly being trained to be scientists, they pay fees for that training – the fact they end up producing useful scientific results is in some senses a side-effect. Postdoctoral workers, on the other hand, are being paid to carry out research – they become more valuable as employees by doing this particularly if along with new scientific skills they pick up other skills such as planning a programme of work, organising experiments with intricate dependencies, mentoring and managing other people,  communicating results, writing, procuring equipment and so forth.

As I said at the beginning: I believe in “Science Is Vital” – it is a worthwhile cause that I am pleased to seeing being pushed forward. I want this program to succeed and I’d like to support it from my viewpoint outside the university sector.