Shrinking support

January 17, 2008

Your article on university laboratories facing a "demographic time bomb" ("Labs at risk from loss of expertise", 4 January) highlighted a continuation of the trend identified by the Royal Society in its 1998 report Technical and Research Support in the Modern Laboratory of a sustained and significant loss of permanently funded technical staff. It found that core-funded technical staff numbers had fallen by 28 per cent in the 1980s (and presumably further still in the early 1990s) and concluded that "there must be no further reduction in technical and research support".

Unfortunately, it appears that too many universities have chosen to ignore these conclusions - the Evidence Ltd report to the Higher Education Funding Council for England shows that there was a further 15-20 per cent loss of core technical support between 1996 and 2001. The article, unfortunately, avoided one significant cause of the reduction - compulsory redundancies in many universities, which have had a greater effect on technicians than on any other staff group.

Such a loss of technical support has several effects, not least on research and teaching. Technical staff are frequently responsible for monitoring and maintaining health and safety in departments, as well as providing in-lab supervision for PhD and undergraduate students. They are also usually the most knowledgeable staff regarding suppliers of consumables and apparatus, thereby stretching tight budgets to maximum effect. This ensures that academic staff can pursue research and teaching more effectively. If there are fewer technicians to do these jobs, then academics would have to bear the additional burden.

Technicians are a vital element of all universities, although often (wrongly) overlooked. We take great pride in the work we do, but if the reductions in our numbers continue the situation will become untenable. Universities need to bite the bullet and reverse the trend by taking on trainees to replace the significant cohort who will be retiring in the next 10-15 years, or they will face the prospect of a loss in research capability and quality.

Tamsin Piper, Branch secretary, University College London Unite (Amicus).

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