Research funding structures should be tailored to the needs of those doing the science

Early career researchers could benefit most from changes to funding structures, says Sven Sewitz, but he is concerned that there simply isn’t the will to make it happen

October 22, 2016
Funding pots growing money
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One Monday last month, I made my way to the Royal Society as an attendant of an Early Career Researcher Conference on the subject of “the culture of research and the future of the science system”. In all, about 90 early career researchers had found their way to London.

The programme we encountered consisted of a panel of four, who briefly outlined what they saw to be the current situation of young researchers, followed by a Q&A session. After lunch, we split into groups to focus on topics such as “people and careers”; “dissemination and public good”; and “the process of research and recognition”.

I chose “people and careers”. I had been part of a similar discussion group in 2012 at a conference in Brussels. Two colleagues and I had pushed for the issue of career prospects to be discussed among a similar group of people there. And that was four years ago.

Again, very similar points were raised in our group of seven at the break-out table. Stable career paths are essential to increase the efficiency of research output. Short-term contracts hurt recruitment, make retaining talent and knowledge difficult, are an added burden on administration and require constant renewal grants to be written by principal investigators. This issue has now gathered such dimensions that several articles have appeared, and continue to do so on a regular basis, decrying the costs, inefficiencies and fallout from this short-term thinking.

The European Science Foundation recently conducted an in-depth study and collected its findings in a 68-page report analysing the career paths of doctorate holders. It comes to stark and dreary conclusions for scientists in short-term positions.

This is echoed by Laura Greenhalgh in a piece on the same subject of short-term positions. She mentions the real-life repercussions that being held in short-term positions has on peoples’ lives. The statistics of researchers subjected to these working conditions are eye-watering: in the Netherlands, almost 80 per cent of postdocs have only temporary contracts. And all across Europe the tendency to offer researchers only short-term contracts is on the rise.

There are now constant murmurs in the halls of power that our current system of employing the people responsible for delivering the innovation that our economy is in search of is fundamentally broken. The most high-profile outcome is the Bratislava Declaration of Young Researchers, which was the result of the Slovak European Union presidency team.

Under point two of four, headed “Sustainable and Transparent Career Trajectories”, it states: “We call on the [European Commission] and Member States to urgently realise employment-stability, and explicit criteria for career progression. The structure of funding schemes should reflect this. The proportion of research scientists on short-term contracts is unacceptable and this affects the quality and impact of the science they do.”

This is arguably the one change that would have the most beneficial impact on the whole scientific process.

I was therefore taken aback when, at the Royal Society meeting, the notion of stable career paths was unceremoniously brushed aside. The current funding structures of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) would simply make it impossible to reallocate already shrinking science budgets to more long-term contracts.

The notions I encountered do not bode well for the science policy recommendations that the Royal Society will distil from this meeting. In fact, turning a blind eye to the many and strong opinions and recommendations formulated by the above-mentioned bodies and individuals will make the Royal Society appear behind the times.

It should be clear that funding structures need to be tailored around the requirements of the people producing the science, and not the other way around. Even if we were discussing these issues under the watchful eyes of Sir Isaac Newton, whose portrait hung behind me during this conversation, and as imposing as the Hefce guidelines may be, they are not the immutable laws of gravity.

As it was, it appeared more likely that one might invent an anti-gravity device than reorganise man-made funding structures to accurately reflect the needs of scientists and to support their careers.

This realisation was depressing. And more to the point, it reflects poorly on the Royal Society, which had set out with what I take to be ample goodwill to understand the current predicament of early stage researchers. The policy recommendations that will be collated from this meeting, a stated objective of the day, will be obsolete before they are handed to the government.

The Bratislava Declaration was nowhere to be seen.

Sven Sewitz is a senior postdoctoral researcher at The Babraham Institute.

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