MPs face fire from disgruntled scientists

March 3, 2006

Disillusioned young scientists warned MPs this week that they were facing a crisis of conscience when undergraduates asked them to recommend a career in science.

About 150 early-career scientists were given the chance to grill members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee this week at a Parliamentary meeting organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

The debate was dominated by complaints about gloomy job prospects, short-term contracts and poor pay.

One young scientist challenged MPs, asking: "Tomorrow I have to address undergraduates in a careers talk extolling the virtues of academia. Given the statistics about low pay, short-term contracts and limited career possibilities after a postdoctorate role, do you have any suggestions as to how I might proceed?"

A young female lecturer said: "I work at least 12 hours a day including weekends, and I rarely have a coffee or lunch break. I am at the top of the lecturer scale. I recently made a comparison between my salary and that of a car salesman. The salesman earned 20 per cent more. That is all I want to say."

A teaching fellow from Exeter University said that she was struggling to concentrate on either her teaching or her research because she was so worried about what would happen in a year, when her short-term contract expired.

While the chief executive of the RSC attempted to extol the merits of a scientific career, members of the committee reinforced the bleak view being voiced by many of the researchers.

Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, said that issues about science careers were common in his constituency postbag.

He said: "People who are working in science do not recommend it for the reasons you have given, and we have to recognise that."

He added: "The City is crying out for people who are numerate. We are losing far too many talented people from our labs."

Dr Harris called on the committee to launch a further inquiry into scientific careers. He said that one answer might be to have four-year postdoctoral positions and to shrink the number of PhD positions so that there were fewer disappointed people in the system.

Des Turner, Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown, said: "Going into science is like going into politics. You have to fail the sanity test first."

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

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