High fliers may roost elsewhere

February 20, 1998

If Britain is to have a future as one of the world's leading research nations something has to be done about financial support for postgraduates and, in particular, PhD students. The PhD is the vocational training qualification for a research or academic career and gaining that qualification is becoming unacceptably hard. Already there are departments in leading universities with scarcely any British students registered for PhDs. We may train our competitors' future researchers, but where are our own?

This situation can only get worse as first degree graduates' debts increase, as the length of research training extends from three to four years and as starting salaries for the brightest rise in other occupations. Young people with the intellectual capacity to gain a PhD are not likely to be lacking other opportunities. Nobel prizewinner Sir Harry Kroto says (Research v) he doubts whether he would have persisted with a career in science under the conditions now on offer. He, like today's high-fliers, had plenty of other offers.

Would-be academics have never expected the financial rewards that accrue to a career in currency trading. The satisfactions are different. But the case studies we report suggest that the balance has now swung too far away from the long years of study involved. Most research students, unless they have exceptionally rich and supportive families, live in poverty, paid far less than the average new graduate salary, and must expect years of insecure short-term contracts before they get a permanent job.

For a lucky few, whose subject falls within the scope of that great fairy godmother the Wellcome Trust, it is, as Dame Bridget Ogilvie points out (see left), possible to live a reasonable life during a research apprenticeship. Winning Wellcome funding is also a pretty good entry on the CV, and working in the top research labs, on which Wellcome insists, increases the chances of getting a job. Wellcome has done much to shame the research councils into improving their own support for students.

But, welcome as this is, it is not enough. On page 16 Patrick Coldstream, summing up the THES debate on peer review, underlines the vital importance of innovation and iconoclasm, of ensuring that the conservatism of established researchers does not stifle new ideas. It must remain possible for bright individuals to pursue their own line outside the big labs, the established centres of excellence, without the patronage of rich funders and distinguished researchers.

It is not practical to suggest that all PhD students must be as well resourced as Wellcome's but it is in both universities' and the country's interest to ensure that research is not only attractive to the hair-shirt crowd and the privately wealthy, or in a narrow range of subjects. There are many claims for any new money that might come science's way, but research students ought to be one of them. There ought also, in these days of booming culture industries, to be ways of supporting long-term students in fields other than science. The collapse of the idea of an arts and humanities research council should not be allowed to mean there is no additional funding in these fields.

At the very least loans should be available to postgraduates on terms as favourable as they are for undergraduates. More secure job prospects are needed for post-docs. And universities could be more helpful over providing part-time work. Things are always likely to be especially tough for older people wanting to take a PhD. For them it will probably always be a sacrifice, but it should not be ruinous.

There will have to be more money if we are to open research careers to bright people regardless of their family circumstances, and have enough people coming into research training to provide a pool of excellence to staff both universities and research-based enterprises. Ian Halliday of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council points out (page 3) that tough lobbying has meant an increase in funds for the US National Science Foundation beyond the dreams of British science. So far lobbying efforts here have sounded too much like whingeing to be effective.

If this growing problem is to be addressed before it is too late, all interested parties should start campaigning now for a favourable outcome from the spending review in July.

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