One that got away from the fish laboratory ...

July 17, 1998

I have turned my back on earning a living in the lab after almost seven years as a scientific researcher. The decision was not easy and has left me feeling like a lapsed scientist, just as I lapsed as a Catholic years ago.

For, although I share the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould's belief that science is one of the great glories of the human intellectual tradition, life as a working scientist in a British university sheds a rather different light on that glory.

A key step to getting ahead in academic science today is to publish papers in learned journals. In 1995 I began to build up a publication list, a requirement for any job with as much as a hint of tenure. I was a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of London, having completed a doctorate on environmental influences on muscle development in fish.

Over the next three to four years I watched while several lecturers were appointed in my department - and saw publication lists grow longer. While people used to move straight from a PhD into a lectureship, today most candidates need to have published several papers, run labs in non-permanent positions, and brought with them their own research money.

The criteria for employment in science reminded me of the inexorable rise in property prices during the 1980s. As the moving of the goalposts discouraged me, the goal itself, the achievement of a lectureship, became less than alluring.

I overheard two older colleagues bemoaning the good old days when academic freedom compensated for the relatively low pay, at least in universities. Times had changed. My colleagues in lectureship positions were more or less constantly involved in grant proposals, teaching and departmental politics. Little time was left for hands-on lab work, a fact most of them regretted. The general feeling was of having been turned into high-class administrators rather than proper scientists.

Nor were the financial prospects good. It was a shock to discover that a friend, ten years my junior and working in computing, earned much more shortly after he had finished university than I did one year into a postdoctoral position. Even on a lectureship scale, starting salaries are as low as Pounds 13,900 at new universities, rising to Pounds 16,400 at old universities.

For a while I pinned my hopes on the possibility that I might be able to attend international conferences. But I soon found that the distance I could travel would only stretch as far as my boss's slush fund. I was trapped. I could not apply to the Natural Environment Research Council, the council that funded my project, because it did not support foreign travel. Bodies such as the Wellcome Trust, on the other hand, would not subsidise me because NERC paid my salary. My efforts to find my own funds to present research papers abroad ended in nothing.

Moreover my undergraduate degree did not prepare me for day-to-day life in science. To my undergraduate self biology appeared to be full of certainties and amazing facts about life, which tireless researchers elucidate using ingeniously simple techniques. But science is about probabilities and not certainties, and those simple techniques turned out to be rather laborious and tricky. I just wish somebody had told me.

The closest anyone came to conveying the essential monotony of doing scientific research day in day out was my boss's musing one day - that scientists lived in a constant state of slight depression alleviated by occasional bursts of euphoria.

I am not alone in leaving. Peter Cotgreave, director designate of the pressure group Save British Science, says: "There is no quantitative study but anecdotally it's a big problem. Everywhere I go, they tell me that it's difficult to get people because everybody's leaving."

There is no question that pay is an issue. "Most people in research are not interested in big money, but the salary gap between what scientists and those working in other fields earn is growing." The combination of comparatively low pay with an increase in bureaucracy and stress, he believes, makes people contemplate other careers.

The last straw was witnessing the ever increasing amount of time spent by colleagues on administration and grant applications. Yet I still believe in science - though not in the way young scientists have to do it - even if I have lapsed.

Tim Matschak was a postgraduate and then postdoctoral research assistant at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London. He is studying for an MSc in science communication at Imperial College, London.

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