Some British universities are recruiting sub-standard researchers because of a shortage of high-calibre candidates.
In a survey of deans of science, carried out by the pressure group Save British Science, 11 higher education institutions admitted lowering their sights to fill vacancies, while 17 said posts had gone unfilled. Low academic pay and stipends were blamed for the crisis.
Peter Cotgreave, director of SBS, warned that salaries must be more competitive if the government's recent investment in science is not to be wasted. "This survey is the first real evidence that there is a crisis," he said.
Dr Cotgreave said the Pounds 4 million fund to recruit the world's best researchers, announced in July's science white paper, did not go far enough. "It is not about 50 people at the top, it is about the foot soldiers, people who have to choose whether to go to the likes of Andersen Consulting with a Pounds 28,000 salary and a Pounds 10,000 golden hello or do a PhD," he said.
A third of the 90 members of the UK deans of science committee who were sent the SBS questionnaire contributed to the survey.
An overwhelming majority said it was increasingly difficult to appoint high-calibre researchers, a problem perceived to have started within the past decade.
Two-thirds admitted appointing staff that in their own judgement would not have been considered good enough in the past or having been forced by a lack of suitable candidates to leave posts unfilled.
Academics told The THES that the problem was patchy, with disciplines where industry could offer particularly high wages affected worse than others.
The Bett report, published last June, noted that academic salaries had fallen behind the market average in the past 20 years, while research by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals showed the difficulties universities face recruiting and retaining staff because of this pay differential.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of the CVCP, said the issue was central to the health of higher education in the UK.
"We have campaigned on behalf of universities for further public spending in this area. The increase in PhD stipends and other ear-marked funds announced in the spending review will go some way to addressing these issues, but a clear need remains," she said.
Stephen Court, senior researcher with the Association of University Teachers, said: "Addressing the pay situation is a first step, but there are other issues, particularly the use of fixed-term contracts."
Oxford Brookes University has had difficulties recruiting and does not expect the problem to ease for some years. Chris Hawes, director of the research school of biological and molecular sciences, said: "The number of applicants for studentships is down and we have had posts that needed repeated advertising, but we try not to lower the threshold."
David Davies, dean of science at the University of Bath, agreed it had become harder to recruit staff but said there had been no need to lower standards. He said that raising student stipends would have a significant impact, "even if that means there are less students, UK science would be healthier for it".
THE SBS QUESTIONNAIRE
Among the science departments in your university, is it easier or harder than it used to be to appoint: A: high-calibre postgraduate students:harder: 86%; easier : 0%; same: 14% B: postdoctoral research assistants: harder: 79%; easier: 3%; same:17% C: academic staff: harder: 86%; easier: 3%; same: 10% If there has been a change, roughly when do you think it began?
Up to 2 years ago: 8%; 2-4 years: 32%; 4-6 years: 36%; 6-8 years: 12%; 8-10 years: 8%; 10-12 years: 0%; more than 12 years: 4% Have the science departments in your university actually appointed students, postdocs or lecturers who would not have been considered good enough in the past?
Yes: 37%; No: 63% Are there posts you have been unable to fill, studentships or postdoc grants that you have returned because of a lack of suitable candidates?
Yes: 57%; No: 43%