Drive to register all UK scientists: benchmark or bureaucracy?

Critics call proposal for world-first professional recognition system ‘demented’

April 20, 2017
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Clumsy strategy: the Science Council’s proposal could prove bureaucratically burdensome and ultimately ineffective, argue scholars

A drive has been launched to make the UK the world’s first country where all scientists are professionally recognised, to help benchmark standards in academia.

The Science Council, which has previously worked closely with researchers from industry, wants more academics and university technicians to become registered or achieve chartered status.

The membership organisation argues that, at a time when there is growing concern about the reproducibility of scientific evidence, professional registration will help to make academics’ research credible, as they will be signing up to a code of professional ethics.

But university-based researchers have spoken out against the idea. One said it was “utterly demented” and could “regulate creativity”, and others questioned the scheme’s usefulness and potential bureaucratic burden.

While other countries have forms of registration for specific disciplines, such as chemistry or geology, the council said that the UK is the first country to look at registering scientists as one group.

The Science Council, a membership organisation for professional bodies and learned societies in science, currently has no power to enforce registration upon scientists. It sets the standards for professional registration of scientists and science technicians and licenses its members to accredit their individual members.

However, the organisation is working with the research councils, which are exploring a registration requirement for science technicians. It is also working with the Government Science and Engineering profession – the professional community for scientists and engineers in the Civil Service, which provides evidence for policy – to roll out registration and raise the profile of the process with key ministers.

Becoming a registered or chartered scientist has previously been popular in industry, and the Science Council hopes to extend this to academia.

The council’s new chair, David Croisdale-Appleby, who is also a visiting professor at Durham University Business School, told Times Higher Education that the introduction of tuition fees and the advent of the teaching excellence framework in England mean that measures of scientific career progression are changing.

“It won’t be enough that an academic is able to get published; she or he will have to also demonstrate that they are an able professional, with skills and experience in applying them that registration publicly recognises,” he said.

He added that “registration is an external mark of competence awarded and recognised outside your institution”, which will help academics hoping to move between universities and industry. “Academic pedigree alone will not be enough to secure jobs in the future,” he said.

But Tony Barrett, director of the Wolfson Centre for Organic Chemistry in Medical Science at Imperial College London, was not convinced of the idea’s merits.

“This is an utterly demented idea by some functionary or functionaries who have far too much spare time, little imagination, and the desire to thwart the progress of science and regulate creativity,” he said. “If I had wanted chartered status, I would have become an accountant or surveyor.”

In order to become registered or chartered, scientists have to apply in writing outlining their skills and experience and provide evidence to the Science Council or a licensed professional body, such as the Institute of Physics or the Royal Society of Chemistry, for example. Some bodies require a face-to-face assessment as well.

Professor Barrett said that no scientists at any stage of their career would benefit from “yet another layer of pointless paperwork”. But he added that the idea could appeal to “third rate scientists” who may see it as a way “to overcome feelings of inadequacy or ineffectiveness”.

Philip Moriarty, professor of physics at the University of Nottingham, said that the key advantage of the scheme was that it would provide “much needed recognition” for technicians. “They’re the lifeblood of universities but too often this is forgotten,” he said.

The move could also “potentially lead to more rigorous standards with regard to publication ethics”, he said. But he added that it was not clear how this could be enforced.

Professor Moriarty added that the process could potentially involve “a massive bureaucratic workload”.

“I’d be concerned that some generic, jargon-ridden commitment to the principles of the scheme will need to be written up and evidence provided to demonstrate that those principles have been followed,” he said.

David Fernig, professor of biological chemistry at the University of Liverpool, said that he could not see how it would be useful for academia and doubted that registering all scientists would be achievable.

He added that the idea of chartered scientists “goes against the growing trend of ‘citizen scientists’ in their many different guises”.

“The status would most likely be used as a lever to protect the few against criticism. Critical thinking is in short enough supply already,” Professor Fernig said.

holly.else@timeshighereducation.com

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Chartered UK scientists: benchmark or bureaucracy?

Reader's comments (2)

Great, who will pay for the registration? As in case I am SMIEEE (paying £150 per year), FHEA (luckily free). I have not applied for CENg because I cannot afford another £100 per year, not that I won't be granted CEng if i apply because I do qualify. Where do we stop and what do we want to prove...?
Neither the Science Council nor my own professional Institute, the RSB, understand that there are plenty of real scientists working outside the confines of academia and commercial research organisations. The evolving system sets a trend to exclude all who do not collaborate in formal institutional 'research teams' – as James Lovelock observed in his latest book, the days of the lone scientist are almost over. Yet some of us still survive: a few are the 'mavericks – the 'free professionals' who work as consultants to international Agencies and even (Heaven forbid) lawyers! Others of us are supposedly retired, members of the Old Codger Brigade, who are at last free to say what we really think about the mediocratic bureaucracy that is now trying to cram recruits to our profession into identical, clearly labelled little grey boxes. Fifteen months ago I formally refused to continue to register as a 'Chartered Scientist', to the surprise of my Society, of which I am a Fellow. People don't do such things, they implied – how will your peers regard you if you recant, after so many years as a professional scientist? Well, I didn't recant at all – I just told them the whole thing was a charade, a box-ticking classification system that has absolutely no meaning as an indicator of my science credentials. In fact, a scam, designed to collect yet more taxes from fearful, gullible up-and-coming young science professionals. As a free professional with a heck of a track record, and a card-carrying loner, the people for whom I've worked in the past know what I do and how I do it. I've never had to carry the crutch of Professional Indemnity Insurance, and never lost a case in Court. Continuous Professional Development (CPD) – the dreary annual accounting demanded for the CSci and other such trivia – is a worthless and easily manipulated paper exercise. This registration caper is merely an inevitable extension of a grotesquely failing higher education system, designed to provide 'qualifications' – like degrees – for all. Very recently I also resigned from a proposed post as a Visiting Lecturer, after a full two hours. The final year students had not the faintest understanding of the material that I was expected to provide them, yet on eventual inevitable graduation would then be enticed into the new qualifications merry-go-round by the professional societies and the Science Council. We parted on good terms, the Science Council and I, with absolutely no expectations of any re-examination of any change in course. My Society was less sanguine about my abandoning its cherished project, but my defection hasn't made the slightest difference to my reputation or standing. So if you, as a scientist, engineer, or any other professional, are willing to rely on your track record, rather than meaningless CPD, to keep the salary rolling in, don't be afraid to stand up against the mediocrats. The people who need your talents will spot them and offer what they consider you're really worth to them. The days of the interminable string of post-nominals are past – as I recently wrote on my blog 'Forget the CPD – just call me Mister!'

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