Research boost will bring jobs bonanza

August 11, 2006

Europe's ambitious targets mean that research students have 'never had it so good'. Mark Rodgers reports.

Young academics will benefit from an unprecedented Europe-wide boom in research jobs, postgraduates heard at their annual national conference last week.

Research students were told that their employment prospects were the best ever - as universities and businesses struggle to fill the estimated 700,000 jobs needed to meet Europe's ambitious goals to boost research spending over the next five years.

Teresa Rees, honorary president of the National Postgraduate Committee, informed delegates at the NPC conference that the European Union's commitments to research spending would mean that "700,000 more researchers will be needed in research and development" and that "this is a good time to be doing postgraduate research".

Professor Rees, pro vice-chancellor for student/staff issues at Cardiff University, added: "If everybody who is trained in engineering, science and technology in Europe went into R&D, there still would not be enough (researchers)."

The comments could not have contrasted more with the conference's theme - "postgraduates under threat: underrepresented, underfunded, undervalued".

But they were echoed by Ian Haines, another keynote speaker and director of the Graduate School at London Metropolitan University. Speaking about EU plans to increase overall spending on R&D to 3 per cent of gross domestic product by 2010, Professor Haines said there would be "increased employability, without a doubt". He added: "There's never been a better time to be a postgraduate student."

The demand for researchers will increase pressure on universities to improve training conditions for staff, amid concerns that PhD students and fixed-term researchers are not being paid enough.

Simon Felton, general secretary of the NPC, said financial obstacles to developing a career in research remained. "The impact of debt and the limited funding support available make it a decision not to be taken lightly," he said.

Meanwhile, a report published by the research councils has revealed that despite increases in PhD stipends over recent years, senior academics are still unwittingly limiting pay for younger researchers.

Louise Ackers, author of the report, said: "For postdocs themselves there is a dilemma of wanting or needing a higher salary, and the fear of costing themselves out of a job altogether." She added: "Principal investigators want to pay their postdocs enough to retain them, but not so much that they risk losing out on getting the grant."

The report by Research Councils UK found that recent increases in postgraduate stipends to £12,000 a year and improved postdoctoral salaries have helped to recruit and retain young academic research talent across many disciplines. But there remain concerns over skills shortages in subjects such as economics, engineering and statistics.

Research councils are encouraging universities to apply for higher salaries and stipends when making grant applications.

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