At the beginning of this month, Science is Vital published a report called ‘Careering Out Of Control’, which presented the results of a survey they performed amongst scientists about their opinions of the state of academic careers in the UK. The report was requested by David Willets, Minister for Universities and Science, and is addressed to him, but it also makes decent reading for everyone. You can read the executive summary here and the report in full here.
Science Is Vital conducted its survey amongst scientists from all backgrounds and career stages, and also asked those who responded to tell their own stories. The familiar problems that I’ve touched upon previously keep on cropping up, namely that scientists are concerned about the short-term nature of many posts, the effect that has on their families, and the worry of running to the end of the line when it comes to a lack of permanent positions.
For those of you not familiar with what a career in science could entail, here are words from one of the respondents, who is described anonymously as a “successful PI” (Primary Investigator i.e. head of a research lab):
“Scientific career structures are too pyramidal. We need lots of PhD students and post-docs to do the research, but we don’t have PI jobs for them to go on to. This wouldn’t be a problem if there were non-PI, staff scientist jobs, but there aren’t. This means that anyone who ultimately lacks the skill set and sheer luck to make it to PI is wasting their time, even though they may be an excellent bench scientist. It also means that skills and experience are constantly leaching out of science as people fall off the pyramid, which is mad considering that the taxpayer has spent a fortune enabling people to acquire those skills and experience. Imagine if teaching had a career structure where you either made it to head-teacher by 40 or you left the profession, and as a result almost [all] teaching was done by vast numbers of newly qualified teachers hoping to make it to head.“
When compared with other sectors like in that last sentence, the situation in acadmic science really does appear absurd. Another depressing quote from the report comes from what Emeritus Professor Uta Frith, Fellow of the Royal Society no less, has to say:
“As an Emeritus Professor I can look back on a golden age for science careers. It makes me sad that now young researchers are in a far less favourable position despite showing superior training, knowledge, communication ability and ambition compared to the standards of my own generation. I now worry about recommending a career in science even though society needs more scientists and scientifically trained people in general.”
Even if neither the hardships of scientists and their families nor the potential damage to UK science are considered strong enough arguments to make, the economic argument is sure to break even the coldest hearts amongst the government’s beancounters. A post-doc writes:
“I have been a postdoc for 8 years now, and I am thoroughly enjoying it. I have made contributions to my field, and have supported my University by teaching, but my publication record isn’t strong enough to secure my own funding or to get a lectureship. This means I am very likely to have to leave academic research by the end of my 3 year contract. That means that 8 years of education and 8 years of postdoc experience, which were mainly paid for by taxpayers’ money and charity funding, are lost. If I had my way I would [remain] a postdoc and keep doing the job I’m very good at. Unfortunately that is not possible, as there are no permanent positions for postdocs, and thus more money will be spent instead training less experienced people up to do the same job, [who] then again will have to leave research. It seems a very wasteful system.”
Another post-doc agrees:
“I’m not actually too worried about becoming a PI. I enjoy being a postdoc and would happily stay in this type of position except that short term contracts of generally only three years make this impractical as a career choice. In addition many institutions/ groups are reluctant to take on senior postdocs as we are too expensive and many grants awarded provide for only a junior postdoc salary. This means that highly qualified senior postdocs repeatedly have to take pay cuts.
All this being the case I am on the point of feeling that I have no choice but to leave a career in science that I really enjoy and am good at. I am certainly not unique in this. It seems crazy to me that many highly trained scientists are making this decision because of the lack of a sensible career structure in academic science. This can’t make economic sense!”
Anyway, I won’t continue to pilfer quotes from the report, because it’s really worth reading yourself.
As well as painting the landscape of what a career in science is in this country, SiV recommend potential solutions to the problems outlined, which fall into two main categories.
The first is to provide more opportunities for older more experienced scientists to fulfil a decent career, even if it isn’t as a PI. This includes the creation of more ‘permanent post-doc’ positions (presumably paid for by the host university/institute), and to make available more opportunities to be named on grants. This will of course require more money (I hear there’s not a lot of this about at the moment?); however, SiV argue some funding could be freed up if the private sector paid for some of the training of academic scientists – since Industry benefits from scientists leaving the Good Ship Academia but doesn’t pay for their training. I think this is suggestion is fair (and by the looks of the increase in collaborations between industry and academia, maybe this is where things are headed) but I think it is unrealistic to expect the private sector to fill the gap in public funding of science – a familiar argument to pretty much anyone who is even slightly uneasy with Dave’s ‘Big Society’ plan.
The second and slightly more pragmatic (or depressing, given your outlook) is to give those starting a PhD realistic careers advice – that there is not a PI position available to everyone at the end, and it is difficult to make it as a successful scientist without any turbulence. So, errr, chin up, chuck!
That frank approach may seem a bit gloomy, but – hang on – I think there is a greater opportunity here. However, it’s a bit fuzzy in my head, and so you’ll have to bear with me whilst I work it out…
We need more jobs for skilled scientists, yet the reality of the situation is that there isn’t enough jobs for every PhD student who starts. On the other hand, UK science is world-leading: according to SiV, the UK produces over 10% of global scientific output with less than 1% of its population, whilst spending less per capita than other countries. It is essential the case is made to maintain the high quality of science in this country. Yet the public, the media, and the government are sometimes removed from how good UK science really is, and how important it is to the UK economy.
So… here it is… my fuzzy plan, my Big Science Society®, if you will. How’s about, if you can’t have a career in science in the UK, you could have a career in promoting UK science?
Think about it. An army of scientists, who have had hands-on experience (at the bench until midnight and then back at lab meeting in the morning) working as science journalists, science teachers, careers advisors, journal editors, museum guides, charity fundraisers, government advisors – hell, how’s about having a scientist as Science Minister for a change? (or even PM!?) Everyone of them, promoting the excellent work that scientists in the UK do? Wouldn’t that be great?
Times are tough for everyone in science, from the top to the bottom. Unfortunately, highly skilled people are not able to find a career in the job they love and at which they excel. However, there are opportunities beyond the bench where scientists could use their vast range of skills to make a real difference to UK Science, something which will not only benefit researchers, but the wider society and economy too.
EDIT: I noticed on the Science is Vital website that David Willets MP (Minister for Universities and Science) replied to their report, and you can read the discussion here.