Which vaccine will stop Covid-19 killing a generation of careers?

An oft-overlooked component of the research process is that simple little thing called leadership, says Matthew Flinders

July 18, 2020

The “leaky pipeline” of research talent has been much debated in recent years, but I fear we need a better metaphor to discuss the crisis we now face thanks to coronavirus.

“Not waving but drowning” springs to mind. Or perhaps “water through a sieve”, as we contemplate the potential loss of a whole generation of early career researchers?

Those lucky few starting out on prestigious postdoctoral research placements will be less affected, but my concern is for the greater masses of PhD students or postdocs who, for one reason or another, are scrambling to secure a research career within academia.

The problems are well known. With extremely high levels of uncertainty around student recruitment creating even higher levels of financial pessimism among university leaders and their accountants, many universities have begun to batten down the financial hatches. Redundancy schemes have been launched, tenured staff told to expect a trebling of teaching loads, research budgets revoked and sabbaticals stopped.

Most seriously, temporary postdocs and fractional teaching staff have been let go. The legions of teaching assistants and lab demonstrators that have for generations underpinned university life while providing graduate students with income and professional experience have suddenly been told their services are no longer required.

What no one seems able or willing to see is that the research ecosystem demands a multiplicity of opportunities. I know this from personal experience. As a young lad from Swindon with no real knowledge of UK academia and no “family money”, I topped up my fees-only PhD bursary through a combination of tutorial teaching and hourly paid research assistance across a variety of institutions and projects. It was a fairly frugal existence but the huge amount of experience and skills I gained secured me a couple of short-term postdocs that allowed me to feel my way into academia.

Even if UK research funding is expanded as promised, the “funded PhD straight into funded postdoc” route is likely to remain very much the exception rather than the norm in a university system whose finances are likely to be savaged by the coronavirus.

We cannot afford to lose a whole generation of researchers, but over the past two weeks I’ve hardly met a PhD student or postdoc who isn’t sharpening up their exit-strategy from academe. The dominant perception is that unless you are one of the chosen few who have already been selected for an explicit talent pathway or fast track then the lecture theatres, laboratories and seminar rooms have little need for you – at least not in the short to medium term. However an increasing body of research reveals that “slow bakers” – who may have changed direction several times in their careers or simply taken their time to explore a few intellectual cul-de-sacs – are likely to overtake the early achievers in mid-career and then really hit the heights of scientific success.

Flourishing research environments do not emerge through fate or good fortune alone. Even large investments in grants, infrastructure and staff are, on their own, far from guaranteed to deliver the kind of world-class scholarship that also informs social progress. Indeed, a fundamental component of the research process that is very often completely overlooked is that simple little thing called leadership. Not leadership in the “riding on a white horse at the front” sense, but a quieter form of supportive, inspiring, focused and protective leadership that nurtures teams in which people with different skills and talents hold different leadership roles appears. These kinds of teams appear most effective in a research context – although the existing knowledge base on what makes effective research leaders is woefully thin.

Although UKRI has recently taken positive steps, the UK science base has never really adopted a strategic or systemic approach to supporting research leadership. But the time has come for leaps, not steps, to drive the talent agenda forward with ambition and agility throughout the full career journey, from pre-doc to full professor.

It’s not often I agree with Boris Johnson. But, when it comes to thinking about research leadership, this is indeed the time to build, build, build.

Matthew Flinders is founding director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre and professor of politics at the University of Sheffield.

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Reader's comments (1)

While I agree with the substance of your article about the problems concerning the academic opportunities for existing doctoral students, I would challenge the resort to leadership as the panacea. Unfortunately, crisis situations routinely bring out demands for, or reliance on, leadership and leaders. Either they are condemned as we search for scapegoats in responding to some tragedy, or they are a “call to arms”, mythical hero to lead us out of the crisis. In both cases, leadership is misrepresented as either failing to meet or as salvation for, our inflated expectations. As someone who earlier in my career managed large research centres supporting numerous researchers in the Manchester School of Management, UMIST, I agree that this is a vital activity for early career academics. While leadership may have some importance, more crucial is that of obtaining the funding to secure the research activity in the first place.

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