High-flyers get lost in space

August 5, 2005

RAE bias and uncertain prospects are often a fellow's lot, says Anthea Lipsett

Research fellows - long seen as the future stars of academe with enviable positions - are often poorly treated by universities and their talent is in danger of being wasted, according to a study from the Academy of Medical Sciences.

The report, The Freedom to Succeed , reveals huge differences in the way universities treat research fellows. Keith Gull, a Wellcome Trust principal research fellow, chaired the academy review group that produced the report.

He said the fellowship route, at its best, had been a success and was a powerful driver for early and mid-career development.

But he added: "It's like Darwinian selection. There are places with extremely good practice but a lot with extremely bad practice where people are surviving and having to work very hard to do so."

Many universities fail to give fellows enough guidance on their prospects when a fellowship ends, which leaves them in the dark about whether they will be given a permanent position. Universities, which do not pay a research fellow's salary, often claim they cannot afford to take on fellows when their funding runs out.

The academy wants universities to be clear about fellows' prospects. It proposes that institutions and funding agencies share the costs of the final two years of five-year fellowships to create a sense of ownership and help integrate fellows into institutions.

Universities should also manage research, teaching and administrative workloads better to make general academic positions more appealing.

Academics often apply for fellowships "negatively" - in other words largely because as a research fellow they are excused from teaching and many administrative duties, Professor Gull said.

The research assessment exercise and subsequent funding are also detrimental to research fellows. Professor Gull said that although fellows were assessed as equivalent to a permanent member of staff, they received a fraction of RAE-based funding. "The Higher Education Funding Council for England constantly says that it treats everybody equally, but that's not the point. You have to know everybody will be funded equally at the end," he said.

The academy also recommends that all funding agencies provide statistics on the number of applications and awards, including a breakdown by gender of fellows, so potential applicants can gauge the likelihood of success.

The aim is to create better partnerships between institutions, funding bodies, fellows and industry, Professor Gull said.

"This is a cohort of more than 500 of the best people in various funding schemes who would make up the equivalent of five or six major research institutes distributed through the UK system," Professor Gull said. "We were astonished that those we spoke to saw a career in industry after their fellowships as a failure."

A spokesperson for Universities UK said: "We recognise the important role research fellows play in the UK's science base. This report makes a useful contribution to discussions about how we can ensure this continues."

anthea.lipsett@thes.co.uk

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