Poor career path puts young off science, MPs hear

November 5, 2004

The Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury, admitted this week that the Government had not yet succeeded in tackling the culture of short-term contracts in academia.

Members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee attacked Lord Sainsbury about the continuing instability of scientific careers during a session on Monday that scrutinised the Treasury's ten-year investment framework for science.

Lord Sainsbury said that the Government had "done a lot of work" on the issue of short-term contracts, but he admitted: "I think we have not made a huge amount of progress."

Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat member of the committee, said that the culture of temporary contracts was one of the primary obstacles deterring young people from pursuing a career in science.

Dr Harris rejected Lord Sainsbury's claims that the European Working Time Directive would make a difference. He argued that under these regulations universities could still hire people on short-term contracts if they could give a reason for doing so - such as a lack of long-term funding.

Kim Howells, the Higher Education Minister, who gave evidence alongside Lord Sainsbury, declined to say whether the Government could force universities to change their employment terms in order to attract more scientists.

But he said that the Department for Education and Skills was "looking hard" at university governance.

Dr Howells said: "We are making sure that whatever else we do, we don't waste the assets we have got there."

He rejected the committee's argument that the introduction of top-up fees would mean that debt-laden graduates would not choose a "low-paid public sector" job in science.

He said that the ability to defer paying off debt until after graduation would encourage people to go to university.

The Council for Science and Technology, which advises the Prime Minister on science issues, said in its official response to the ten-year science framework: "The mismatch between the aspiration of these young researchers and the opportunities available to them creates bad publicity for scientific careers."

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