Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the UK Life Sciences Committee

  The UK Life Sciences Committee (UKLSC) is an umbrella body representing 17 leading learned societies (see Appendix) comprising some 35,000 cell, molecular and physiological life scientists, many of whom work in UK universities and research institutes. The present submission was compiled from responses made to the questions in the consultation by the committees of individual member societies of UKLSC. Since these committees largely comprise senior academics and researchers UKLSC is able to speak with authority on the issues raised in the inquiry.


  1.1  Yes, it really matters from the points of view of discouraging young people from embarking on a research career, demoralising the bulk of researchers who reach the stage of having completed two to three short-term contracts and face an uncertain future, and being inefficient for research teams.

  1.2  There is no question that short-term contracts are beneficial for new post-docs. These are still establishing research credentials and mobility between laboratories, with the consequent cross-fertilisation of ideas, helps them to gain experience and move towards becoming independent researchers. It also provides some flexibility to university research groups. The process is rather similar to the rotations that junior hospital doctors follow before deciding on a specialisation.

  1.3  However, the lack of funding continuity inherent in the present system becomes a real problem for contract research staff (CRS) when they face making a major commitment such as a mortgage or marriage. For female CRS considering starting a family there is no assurance of paid maternity leave or continued employment afterwards. It is also more difficult for CRS to find employment as they gain experience and become more expensive to support through grant money. Funders are cost-driven and will not support the salary of a senior post-doc when they perceive the same job could be done by a more junior CRS. This does not give proper value to the wealth of expertise and knowledge that a senior experienced worker can bring to a team. It affects particularly those scientists, perhaps in their early 40s, who do good independent work but do not want to become group leaders or lecturers.

  1.4  The short-term contract system is inefficient for research and research teams because:

    —  it drives researchers to address problems with three-year solutions at the expense of longer-term research;

    —  for much of the final year of a contract the CRS is pre-occupied with the need to have the grant renewed or to search for another post;

    —  CRS can frequently disrupt a research project by abandoning a post mid-term if a more secure position becomes available. It is rarely possible to plug a gap like this usefully, and it makes project management difficult;

    —  if affects the continuity of research programmes since it is becoming increasingly difficult to retain highly qualified, trained and motivated CRS to underpin the efforts of research teams. Senior CRS may well have expertise that the Principal Investigator lacks;

    —  it is expensive and wasteful in that CRS trained in new techniques may quickly move on.

  1.5  The lack of a clear career structure, together with the uncertain prospects and poor salary, discourages undergraduates from embarking on a PhD and post-docs moving to a career in academic science.


  2.1  The very best / most driven CRS can be fairly assured of career development and a tenured academic position, but the large majority face massive insecurity, stress or demoralisation. For these the ability to plan their careers is severely limited.

  2.2  The result is that talented and highly trained scientists abandon academic research. As discussed in section one, many leave at the senior post-doc stage by which time it is difficult to secure another research post either in academia or industry. Consequently they may retrain and move into non-science-related careers. This represents a waste of training and investment. Such senior post-docs may be highly motivated by science at a practical level and have no desire to become team leaders. Because of family and life-style commitments, women researchers frequently fall into this category. There are very few tenured positions for career bench scientists.

  2.3  CRS may regard a lifelong career in science as being almost unattainable and therefore always be on the lookout for options in other areas. This can reduce the motivation to engage fully in their current research.

  2.4  There is a lack of incentive for a research group to train and develop a CRS, knowing that the person will soon have to move on. But if training is inadequate then the CRS will be less able to compete for the next step of the research ladder.

  2.5  The Chair of UKLSC summed up the position: the very best (CRS) will make it into academic positions but may be turned off; the worse should not make it and are wasting their time; the middle, and largest, group of highly trained and motivated scientists sometimes struggle for many years then usually leave.


  3.1  The Roberts Review team was convinced by the evidence available to it that there are problems across science and engineering at all stages in the recruitment, retention and development of good post-doctoral researchers. Its report highlighted as reasons the lack of a career structure together with the uncertain prospects of short-term contracts, and increasingly uncompetitive salaries. UKLSC would endorse this conclusion.

  3.2  Within the life sciences there is evidence that some of the brightest graduates may not be continuing into research. The Biochemical Society's annual surveys of initial graduate employment show that the proportion of graduates with Firsts electing to start research degrees decreased by 18 per cent between 1998 and 2000. The proportion of PhD graduates moving to research positions in academia or industry also decreased significantly, while the proportion moving to careers outside science trebled from three to almost 10 per cent.


  3.3  In a recent on-line survey of Biochemical Society members 89 per cent of respondents considered that poor pay and job insecurity in academic research are important disincentives to bright graduates starting PhDs. There was strong support (87 per cent) for the need to create more tenured "bench scientist" positions in universities.


  3.4  In the present consultation the Head of Department at a leading university, whose department was rated five in each of the last to RAEs, reported to UKLSC:

    —  increased difficulty in recruiting really good PhD students;

    —  great difficulty in recruiting lecturers from the pool of British-trained post-docs. The last three appointments were all scientists from abroad.

  He concluded that the pool of homegrown talent is drying up and ascribed this to poor salary and career prospects. Increasing PhD stipends and initial post-doc salaries (as recommended in the Roberts report) would not in itself overcome this problem.

  3.5  Other respondents cited personal experiences of good post-docs leaving the system. Although anecdotal, these could readily be quantified in a more detailed survey. For experienced post-docs the most important factors appeared to be the lack of security and lack of career structure, with poor salary less important. For new PhDs and early post-docs low academic salaries compared to those achievable elsewhere were likely to be a greater disincentive. One respondent pointed out that the private sector is moving towards short-term contracts and that employment is becoming less secure, but this has not apparently discouraged some of our best graduates from seeking jobs in that sector.


  4.1  Respondents found this difficult to answer because it will vary between universities, departments and disciplines. Where figures were suggested they ranged from 1:1 to 3:1.

  More important factors were considered to be:

    —  the need for CRS to see a clear progression structure from PhD onwards (see section 6);

    —  that the balance enables research groups to maintain the impetus of their work and continuity of skills and experience is assured. Each group should contain, or have access to, a permanent member of staff with high-calibre specialised technical skills, as well as a permanent senior post-doc who can provide continuity of experience.

  4.2  Several respondents stated that they would not want to see an increase in research-only staff (ie non-teaching) in universities, other than to provide essential core support.


  5.1  It was apparent from the responses that experience differs between universities. The majority of respondents considered that these initiatives have had little impact. Some, however, though that they have increased awareness of employment law, which has encouraged CRS to become more involved in planning their futures. Others were aware of universities that have linked holders of research fellowships into an academic career structure, or that have formal post-doc employment programmes and mentoring schemes with redundancy rights for CRS. Some universities were known to have introduced new policies in relation to post-doc employment and training, but respondents suspected a gap between policy and practice.

  5.2  There are clearly examples of good practice that need to be more widely disseminated. The research Careers Initiative has issued a series of reports and good practice guidelines. The Roberts report concluded: "This has led most universities to review and to some extent improve their procedures and their pattern of employment of CRS".


  6.1  The key issues are clearly:

    —  The uncertainty of CRS careers

    —  Poor salaries

  6.2  There needs to be a clear structure for CRS progression that recognises that only a small proportion will find tenured academic positions. UKLSC agrees with the Roberts report that contract research should be seen as a preparation for a range of careers that reflect the skills possessed by CRS. IT also supports he concept of there being three pathways down which CRS may progress: industrial, academic, or Research Associate (bench scientist).

  6.3  This will require a better system of appraisals, mentoring, and careers advice early on in an academic career. The benefit is that it will lead to fewer CRS proceeding with false expectations of tenured academic employment and more finding alternative employment at an early post-doc stage. There is a question of how continuing professional development (CPD) will be funded and provided. The Robert's report noted that from the perspective of universities the principal desired output of a post-doctoral researcher is research, principally in the form of publications, and this leads to CPD being under-emphasised. The report recommended that funders of CRS should provide adequate money earmarked for CPD within the research project grant. UKLSC supports the Roberts report's further recommendation that all relevant funding from HEFCE and the Research Councils should be made conditional on universities demonstrating that they are managing the careers of CRS appropriately.

  6.4  The idea of creating new five year Fellowships to prepare CRS on the academic pathway from lectureships is an interesting one, although if only 200 are intended across all disciplines then it only touches on demand. Furthermore, it could cause problems for universities in that they will be expected to underwrite lectureships for the Fellows very early in their careers. With regard to the posts for what Roberts terms Research Associates UKLSC societies favour more resources being devolved to university departments to enable them to underwrite a limited number of permanent positions that may be financed on a rolling basis from grant income. This would help to retain a key grouping of post-docs in academic research by providing security of employment. It would need to be done in relation to the strategic planning for research within each university department. Funders should also appreciate the value of team building and recognise the additional skills that experienced researched can provide.

  6.5  Universities need greater access to more secure, sustained, funding for research in order to be able to plan better for longer-term research.

  6.6  As noted in Section 3.4, increasing the stipends of PhD students and new post-docs will not resolve the issue of perceived poor salaries and conditions in academic research. Young scientists are bright enough to look forward and ask themselves what they will earn by the time they make it to a Professorship in there 40s. In the recent on-line survey of Biochemical Society members only 34 per cent considered that supposed benefits of academic life such as intellectual satisfaction and academic freedom compensate for poor pay and conditions.

  6.7  The forthcoming government Spending Review needs to make substantial funding available to improve academic salaries and to improve research infrastructure. Data in Tables 5.6 and 5.7 of the Roberts report indicate that biology is one of the disciplines in which universities have had to use promotion to more senior positions as a tool for recruiting and retaining staff. UKLSC societies do not favour funding being linked to initiatives, and certainly, where they are then universities should receive the full amount of funding. Initiative that require matching input cause universities enormous problems and squeeze money available for other purposes.

21 June 2002

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