Young scientists have told the House of Commons science and technology select committee how low salaries, lasting student debts and a poor public image of science are turning them off academic careers.
At a meeting organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry, 170 scientists and engineers aged below 35 years voiced concerns to the committee.
Ian Gibson, chair of the select committee, said: "There's too much talk and too little work. If we don't do something now, the science base in Britain will slip back."
The research assessment exercise was seen as causing a major problem.
A lecturer from Greenwich University said young researchers could never kickstart their careers if the government focused only on 5-rated departments where researchers were expected to have international reputations.
Members of the committee, which is reviewing the RAE, said the exercise had driven up quality, but they were concerned about its cost. They said they were considering exemption for institutions that were already performing well.
Several delegates suggested that the government pay back student loans for researchers, mirroring the way many city firms attracted graduates.
One young academic supervising four PhD students said dustmen in Westminster earnt more than he did. And a doctoral student said he owed more money in student loans than his annual research council stipend.
Other issues included the difficulty in taking career breaks for both men and women, short-term contracts and conservatism in the research councils when considering applications for blue-skies research.
Dr Gibson said Sir Gareth Roberts's forthcoming review of science careers in the United Kingdom would have considerable bearing on the delegates'
future careers. He added that the select committee could launch an inquiry based on its findings.
But he said that science was high on the government's agenda and that this was the best time to be doing science for 30 years.
David Giachardi, chief executive of the RSC, said the conference had been a success and that it was important that the committee met with younger people rather than with the established figures on whom it usually calls for evidence.
It will be repeated next year.