A message to Santa

December 22, 1995

Even the most magnanimous of Santas would be hard pressed to fill the stockings of the increasingly beleaguered scientific community. Thousands of contract researchers would like permanent jobs, better pay and working conditions which would put them on a par with more fortunate (though also underpaid) colleagues in permanent posts and provide them with career prospects that matched the public rhetoric about the vital importance to the nation of studying science and engineering.

Many science and engineering researchers would also no doubt like to draw Santa's attention to the dilapidated buildings which house their less than state-of-the-art equipment. Others might put in a non-request this Christmas: please no more research assessments, teaching assessments, writing never-to-be-funded alpha rated research grant applications, and "efficiency scrutinies" that keep people from doing the research itself.

The volume of world-class research work conducted in our universities is substantial. British universities are taking the lead in a raft of pan-European projects funded from Brussels. In molecular biology, particle physics, astronomy, for example, Britain is tops. More controversially, compared to others in Europe and Japan our universities are becoming increasingly expert at running collaborative research programmes which tap industrial and commercial sources of income. The difficulties with this work lie more in the field of intellectual property and copyright than cash flow. The universities need to bargain harder and stop under-cutting each other in order to improve salaries and facilities. A present from Santa of 40 per cent overheads plus a share in the royalties all round would not go amiss.

Science is getting ever more expensive. Competition is becoming fiercer and more global. As other countries invest more from public and industrial sources, our historic lead is being eroded -- hence Britain's poor showing in the Nobel science prize.

Santa could help bring a political sea change on the importance of investing in science. He could lobby employers to induce some sensible thinking among politicians. As Arthur Lucas, principal of King's College London, said at a recent careers conference, young people are put off studying science not just because mathematics and physics seem harder than arts subjects, but also because they think employers favour arts graduates. The division itself is silly and damaging. We need both. Many of the skills are common and an understanding of both is indispensible. Employers need to form up behind Sir Ron Dearing and insist that something is done to broaden the post-16 curriculum to ensure people study science and technology for longer.

Subject-specific employment for life is disappearing. The reasons include the impact worldwide of Japanese achievements in production technology, the expansion of the global market, flattening of management structures and acceleration in scientific and technological change. What science needs this Christmas is, of course, more money, but also more love and attention in the sixth-form through to the research lab.

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