On 5th October 2011 we submitted a report with the result of our Science Careers consultation to the Minister for Universities & Science The Rt Hon David Willetts, MP. We’re making it available to all interested parties. Thank you to everyone who contributed!


Executive Summary

Science is vital for the UK economy. A healthy scientific career structure, in turn, is crucial to maintain our strong research base, especially in a time of public austerity. Science is Vital, a grassroots campaigning group with the aim of protecting and championing science in the UK, recently conducted a consultation amongst a wide range of scientists in the UK to explore their views on the career structure of the profession.

Nearly 700 respondents, distributed across the spectrum of the scientific career, submitted written evidence – from students and postdocs to principal investigators, department heads, emeritus professors and Fellows of the Royal Society, representing more than 160 institutions across all four nations of the United Kingdom. We found that the top concern of these scientists was the career instability caused by successive fixed-term contracts and the shortage of permanent research positions. Other problems included issues of pay, mobility, balancing work with having a family or relationship, pressure to assess impact, and the fact that in many cases younger scientists are not allowed to facilitate their careers by applying for their own grants.

This exercise uncovered the widespread view that the scientific career structure in the UK is not fit for purpose. If the situation is not improved, we risk seriously undermining our research base and, in turn, imperilling the economy. Clearly, increasing funding for science in the next budget would significantly help ease the pressure. In the meantime, however, drawing from our respondents’ ideas, we have proposed a number of solutions that we would like to see discussed among government, scientists, funding bodies and universities, including:

  • The creation of more permanent research staff positions that are not principal investigators/lab heads
  • More funding earmarked to help bridge the transition from postdoc to independent position
  • More independent fellowships, and the abolition of eligibility criteria that effectively discriminate against older postdocs or those who have followed a non-traditional career path
  • Increased opportunities for postdocs to apply for project grants as the named investigator in their own right
  • The inclusion of early and mid-career researchers in ongoing discussions about the scientific career structure and funding issues
  • Private sector contributions to scientific training
  • Improved career advice for PhD students and postdocs

Download the full the report here (PDF, 428 kb).


Categories: Careers

10 Responses to Careering Out of Control: A Crisis in the UK Science Profession?

  1. Anita Hall says:

    To all at Science is Vital – thank you very much for your hard work in writing this report. I look forward to seeing what happens next and if I can be useful, getting involved in the discussion. I’ll be able to face our new idealistic, research-minded undergraduates with fresh hope today. Anita

  2. rpg says:

    Anita, thank you very much! Working out how to involve more people is high on our agenda, now.

  3. This report and its findings are indeed very thought provoking and also merit some action. I work with many highly talented scientists at all stages of their career and run talent and career building workshops for scientists in the hopes to enable them to continue to live their passion. Being trained and having worked as a scientists myself, I am all too familiar with the challenges and hurdles staying in science can mean for many. Having helped many others stay in it and succeed, I hope I can share my learning and add energy to finding ways to do that on a larger scale.

  4. Dr Tom Tidswell says:

    I agree entirely. There are two main points I would particularly agree with:
    1. Job security – is fairly lousy. I am a medical doctor and PhD and had the option of choosing to continue in research, however the risk of stop-start funding was too high for me to support a family and mortgage (in London); medicine has a very high job security and wages by comparison.
    2. Wages – are, lets face it, dreadful for people with 7 years of education. This distorts where bright students will go for careers, and I am sure that many are put off by the wages that scientific research careers offer (overall not good for research, or UKPLC).

    Solutions would be to offer 10-15 year career progression salaries to researchers; no doubt this would be highly competitive, and still end up with a degree of brain drain from research, but surely better than 3 year fundings posts.

  5. avg says:

    The summary doesn’t argue too well the case from the point of view research quality. Research quality depends on one thing alone – creativity.
    The biggest problem of academic research is that it can’t and doesn’t screen for creativity. First – because you are always working on someone else’s projects and they reflect someone else’s creativity, second – because the incentives point towards low-risk projects, which implies projects in the area of what is predictable and therefore known, as opposed to new, unpredictable and experimental – with unknown results.
    Permanent positions and the ability to propose one’s own projects would improve the situation on both counts.
    I would also argue that these should extend to PhDs as well, and that people working on someone else’s projects should actually be in a another permanent position that reflects the nature of the work – a research technician.
    In other words – PhDs should learn to do research (or demonstrate ability to do research) by actually doing research – their own research on their own small projects, with the help of their supervisors, where needed. “Research technicians” would be the people that do the work that is currently done by PhDs and post-docs.

  6. fnd says:

    One of the comments above mentions 3 year postdoc positions. In my field these are a thing of the past. Increasingly because of the emergence of large collaborative projects, contract lengths have significantly decreased. I did get funding through NERC on a project where my position was funded for the first year of a 3 year project and then the last year, for which I did count myself lucky! I think short term-ism now is enshrined within the research funding structure. Because of the way the system works, not only does the research need to be carried out within a 6 – 12 month period, but it needs to be written up, and published in that timescale as well. Its absolutely ludicrous.

  7. pshsurfer says:

    This is an important discussion and it is wonderful that people are taking the time to develop and support it.

    The culture of British science supports the stifling of young talent in favour of maintaining a hierarchy of professorial staff with limited ability and creativity. At a major university on the east coast of Scotland we have been told by one of the most senior medic-scientist at the MRC that, ‘academic professors don’t give a sh*t who is coming up behind them’. Whereas medicine has a successful mentoring scheme, basic science has no such system of encouragement, advice and support.

  8. Sarah Blackford says:

    Great work! It’s good to know that Science is Vital was asked to write this report. I agree with the majority of your findings and a new academic career structure would certainly address some of the issues – although there will always be new people coming into the system so a degree of attrition is inevitable. Could I make a couple of comments with regard to some of the points you raise:

    1. Speaking as a professional HE careers adviser who’s been working with postgraduates and postdoctorals for over 15 years, the UK is recognised as the world leader when it comes to careers provision in this regard. Whilst there is always room for improvement, the ‘Roberts Money’ which was made available to universities, Vitae and support from funding bodies and other organisations such as learned societies has meant postgrads and postdocs in the UK have had access to a vast array of specialist careers support over the last decade. My concern is the low take-up and engagement with these resources and activities even though they are freely available.

    2. Whilst acknowledging that most PhDs and postdocs are scientists, the academic career path is the same (and worse) for the arts and humanities – and other science research careers do exist outside of academia. I suspect there are more academic positions in science than there were say 20 years ago due to the expansion of universities, however the burgeoning postdoc community makes the probability of securing one of these very low. I would recommend that all postdocs receive a careers interview at the end of their first or (definitely) second postdoc to determine whether they consider they have a fighting chance of realising a full academic career or whether they should be considering an exit strategy (and of course, this is assuming no redundancies along the away – something we are all subject to).

  9. avg says:

    Sarah Blackford wrote “My concern is the low take-up and engagement with these resources and activities even though they are freely available”

    Mentoring schemes feel a bit medieval, where secret knowledge of the career path schemes available to a post-doc are passed from master to apprentice.
    The career path schemes themselves are obscure and unpublicized by the respective departments.
    Even if you do find about them (various fellowships), you need permission to access things like the costing tools, and the information about the submission format and requirements can be very hazy.
    Overall, it feels designed to promote the involvement and dependence of higher-ups. It’s not in any way things that are insurmountable, it’s just contrary to goal of getting independent thinking and working individuals in research, by promoting the opposite behavior at the bureaucratic level.
    (It’s the same on the academic level as well – to generate hi-value articles you need to be working on a good project, which implies a talented supervisor)

  10. Clare says:

    I have spent 7 and a half years in higher education and I am two weeks away from handing in my PhD thesis (please consider this, if I start to rant!).
    I love research. I enjoy the creative freedom, making a difference, being the first to find out how something works. It is a great privilege to go to work and enjoy what you do. However, I have bills to pay, a future to build and I have a partner with a secure job, who can’t move every three years.
    I was recently offered a post doctoral research position for £24,500 and they were shocked when I said that I wouldn’t work for any less that £30,000. They were shocked! SHOCKED! I was fuming. I have worked myself into the ground for 7 and a half years and most undergraduates are walking into graduate training programs that start at a similar wage. I have managed to get the wage up to £28,000, but they weren’t happy about it. I was head hunted for this position, anyone else would have needed months of training and had I not stood my ground my starting wage with a PhD would have been £24,500. Needless to say, I took the job, because I can’t yet bring myself to leave academia.
    I have been battling with my conscience for months now, but I feel that after this year, I will be jumping ship, although I don’t want to, I can’t afford to stay in research. There’s the student debt to think about too. I was once told you do this job for the love of it not the money. However there is a point where self-worth kicks in and at this point I started to feel very bitter. It just feels so unjust. It is sad that people, like myself, who have worked hard to do something they really enjoy are walking away…
    I don’t think I can name one person, in my year group, that thinks being a PI is an attractive job. We’re losing fully trained, intelligent and enthusiastic scientists and that cannot be right.

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