More postdocs, more data skills top biology sector wish list

Early results of 2014 vulnerable skills survey by BBSRC and MRC highlight concerns and importance of multidisciplinarity

October 23, 2014

Source: Getty

High-value numbers: statistics and analysis are deemed most at risk

Data analysis and multidisciplinary research are the skills in shortest supply in biological and medical sciences, according to the initial results of a survey.

The research community also has concerns about the supply and recruitment of postdoctoral researchers, according to Clare Bhunnoo, strategy and policy manager at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, one of two research councils involved in the study.

This appears to be at odds with the apparently high numbers of PhD students looking for postdoctoral positions, she added.

Some 120 organisations took part in the 2014 vulnerable skills survey by the BBSRC and the Medical Research Council, about 80 per cent of which were universities. It follows a similar survey in 2009.

This year about 240 capabilities were specifically listed as vulnerable. Initial results suggest that a quarter of the academic institutions, professional bodies and companies polled ranked statistics and analysis as strategic capabilities most at risk, with a fifth raising concerns about multidisciplinary skills.

Skills could be deemed vulnerable for a number of reasons, including a decreasing number of individuals possessing them, limited training opportunities, a lack of career paths that preserve them, or emerging areas of research, said Dr Bhunnoo.

She presented an early look at the results at the BBSRC’s first meeting of postdoctoral researchers at the Society of Biology in London, ahead of a full report to be published later this year. The event on 6 October was intended to forge closer relationships between the research council and the junior academics it funds.

The survey also asked about the stage in the research career path where skills vulnerabilities existed. Issues of supply, recruitment, retention and current numbers came up most strongly at the postdoc stage, and at lesser levels for the PhD and independent researcher level.

Organisations “are having trouble recruiting postdocs, either because of the interest in their field of research or because they are looking for specific skills and they can’t find someone with those skills,” Dr Bhunnoo told Times Higher Education. This is “confusing” given the number of people wanting to find a postdoctoral position, she added.

Compared with the results of the survey in 2009, worries about data analysis have increased in prominence, but industrial biotechnology skills are now seen as less of an issue, she said. Other areas where vulnerabilities persist are “in vivo” sciences where the biological effects on whole animals are considered, and plant sciences.

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Reader's comments (1)

Such multidisciplinary research is not encouraged to develop in the UK. There is an obvious solution: provide a career path for people with these skills. Computing & maths departments are not willing or able to invest in infrastructure to support biology research. Competition for places in medical schools in particular is fierce and research administrators obviously prefer to recruit people with skills close to their own, which they can assess more accurately. I suspect multidisciplinary research in universities is further hindered by teaching obligations. If analysis or biology do not form a large part of the undergraduate curriculum in a department, there could be a perception that multidisciplinary researchers would not cover a fair share of the teaching load, counting against them during competition for permanent positions.

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