Leader: Lab bench needs front bench help

The right state formula is needed to tackle the wasteful mismatch between so many trained scientists and so few jobs

June 2, 2011

If you want to know what a labour of love really is, speak to a scientist. They are often passionate about what they do - and they have to be, some would say, to put up with the precarious job prospects and the lack of support. Blogger and tweeter Dr_Aust_PhD summarises the situation succinctly: "I find it so tragic that the supply of people who want to do scientific jobs, who have trained for many years to do them, who are really good at them and who truly have a passion for them, far exceeds the supply of jobs there are for people to do science."

The figures for progression are indeed dismal. In the US, just 20 per cent of recent PhD recipients in science will secure tenure-track positions, according to estimates by the National Science Foundation; in the UK, only 30 per cent will go on to postdoctoral posts and just 12 per cent will get permanent jobs, according to the Royal Society. Educating so many people so expensively for so few possible positions is not only depressing for the people involved, it is also an incredibly inefficient use of taxpayer cash.

The ratio of principal investigators to postdoctoral researchers is often thought of as a pyramid, but Jenny Rohn, a cell biologist at University College London, described it at last week's Royal Institution debate, "Science careers: has the science establishment let down young researchers?", as "more like a big spike in the middle of a vast, flat surface".

In our cover story, she is even more explicit about the lottery of the postdoc working life, saying it is "cruel...for universities to be complicit in a system that nurtures you only to fuel a research machine that seems to care very little for your fate once your contract has run its course". The fact that postdoctoral labour is cheap labour, removing university incentives to give them a better deal, makes matters worse.

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, a participant in the Royal Institution debate, is aware of the problem - "Every time I visit a science lab people raise it with me" - and is sympathetic to the view that there ought to be more permanent postdoctoral posts. However, he adds that people have to face up to the fact that with money being scarce, creating more science jobs would require trade-offs elsewhere, and says that the government (unusually) does not want to interfere.

Unfortunately, this is a huge structural problem that has been around for years, although it has been exacerbated by the effects of the global recession, which has made universities wary of hiring new staff and senior scientists reluctant to retire. So what is the answer?

Of course, no one wants direct interference from a government that has already been accused of nibbling away at the edges of the Haldane principle by, for example, ending the Economic and Social Research Council and British Academy small grants schemes. But it is a problem of such complexity and magnitude that it is difficult to see who else could help the science community to finally get to grips with it.

If, as the government constantly points out, scientists are vital for the economic growth of this country - and much of its rhetoric has championed science over the arts and humanities - then it has a responsibility to postdoctoral researchers to ensure that their love of science can end in commitment, not tears.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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