Make sense of science

January 15, 2015

The Royal Society has recently published guidance on the career expectations of doctoral students in the sciences (“Dispel illusion of PhDs leading to jobs for life, says Royal Society”, News, 18/25 December). The statistics suggest that only a small minority are working in higher education research roles or in teaching three and a half years after graduating. The society suggests that these students should be looking outside science for their careers and polishing their transferable skills.

Yet government policy for years has been to encourage children to study science technology, engineering and mathematics subjects because the nation needs more scientists. To this end it has been allocating special funding streams through the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The government has also been enthusiastic about Centres for Doctoral Training. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is recorded as having decided to “slash the number of PhD students that it funds” by a third in order to find the money to fund these ventures with the claim that “students trained in this way are much sought-after by business and academia” (“Anger grows as 1,000 engineering and physical sciences PhDs slashed”, News, 4 August 2011).

It is no secret why there is such a dropout rate among postdoctoral scientists. Permanent posts are few and the norm is to work on a series of externally funded research projects, with one’s future at the discretion of the holder of the grant. The law may now insist on permanent or open-ended contracts after a time but those commonly include a “subject to the availability of funding” clause.

There are now rumours that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is planning to remove the remainder of the old block grant funding from Hefce (the “research” part) and give it to Research Councils UK to distribute. This would give the government more control over the availability of opportunities for postdocs. The whole system requires radical overhaul, but not in that direction.

Last year, the Royal Society, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Academy of Medical Sciences said: “clear stable career paths are needed”. So why is the Royal Society now calling for young scientists to plan to abandon hope of finding such a path, even as they begin their doctorates?

And when concerns are raised by Times Higher Education about the employability of PhDs throughout Europe (“PhD employment data ‘need to be richer’ ”, www.timeshighereducation.co.uk, 3 January), the need for the UK to tackle the present situation seems clearer still.

G. R. Evans
Oxford

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