A new scheme to create 1,000 permanent research positions for young academics could fall foul of the current state of flux in higher education, said one of the government's most outspoken MPs.
The £23 million Academic Fellowship scheme, unveiled by science minister Lord Sainsbury this week, was criticised by Ian Gibson, chair of the House of Commons science and technology committee. He said vice-chancellors were not in a position to guarantee employment for the researchers at the end of the five-year fellowships.
The fellowships were designed to address concerns raised in Sir Gareth Roberts' review of the supply of scientists, which was published 18 months ago. Noting that there was no secure path from PhD to a job as a university lecturer, the report called on the government to set up 200 fellowships modelled on the schemes run by the Royal Society and Wellcome Trust. These were to cover full salary costs, research expenses and administrative costs.
Announcing the scheme, Lord Sainsbury said: "These new fellowships will help UK universities retain postdoctoral researchers and build upon their record of academic excellence."
But to receive one of the academic fellowships, recipients must be funded principally through research council grants, industrial sponsorship or by a university itself. The award will provide top-up funding for the first two years, most of the funding for salary and direct research costs during the third year, and then decrease in years four and five.
When applying for fellowships, universities must guarantee a permanent place for successful recipients. But Dr Gibson, a staunch opponent of government plans to concentrate research, warned that universities were unlikely to commit themselves to employing a fellow after five years because many did not know whether they would be research or teaching institutions at that time. He added: "The salaries should be paid entirely by the government. It would be a signal that it is prepared to put its money where its mouth is."
The scheme runs until 2006, but is expected to last beyond that. The first round of funds is expected to be announced early next year and allocated by next autumn. Researchers in any area covered by the research councils or the Arts and Humanities Research Board will be eligible.
A consultation document is available at www.ost.gov.uk/research/academic_fellowship_cons.htm . Responses to be submitted by 14 November.