Research intelligence - Technically indispensable

All those without whom: Paul Jump on schemes to recruit, train and accredit unsung heroes of the lab

November 15, 2012

Credit: Alamy
Faithful Sherpas: technicians who do the legwork in the lab but fail to get recognition for their contribution to research will benefit from a new training scheme

When, late this summer, University of Sheffield vice-chancellor Keith Burnett turned down a champagne reception in London for the heads of universities involved in the discovery of the Higgs boson in favour of an oversubscribed Sheffield conference on technical training, Terry Croft finally dared to hope that an approaching black hole in universities' technical expertise could be avoided.

Mr Croft, director of technical development and modernisation at Sheffield, is the mastermind behind the university's new training scheme for technicians, which he hopes will become a model for the entire UK university sector.

Technicians have always been the unsung heroes of research: the faithful Sherpas whose legwork in running major central facilities, carrying out routine experiments and preparing samples and reagents in teaching and research labs, allows their academic colleagues to scale the heights of discovery - and then take the glory for doing so.

But concerns have been voiced for more than a decade about the steadily rising average age of the UK's technical staff, leading to fears that impending mass retirements will leave universities with a debilitating shortage of expertise.

According to Mr Croft, who is also chair of the Institute of Science and Technology, the technicians' professional body, the number of technicians working in UK higher education fell by around 5 per cent between 2009-10 and 2010-11. Of the current head count of around 21,000, 7 per cent are 60 or older, he added.

One perceived turn-off for graduates considering a technical career has been its low status within the academy, exacerbated by its lack of professional status.

Ben Palmer, a research technician in Sheffield's department of materials science and engineering, agreed that there was a sense within the academy of technicians being "a bit under the stairs".

For that reason, he welcomed the Science Council's new professional registration scheme for technicians. The launch in March of the three-level scheme coincided with the publication of yet another "black hole" report: this one, from the Technician Council, estimated that the UK must educate another 450,000 technicians across all sectors by 2020.

Development is a lifelong affair

Mr Palmer, who has attained the second level of registration, known as "registered scientist", particularly welcomed the news that technicians will be required to undergo continuous professional development, not only to attain the highest, "chartered" status but also simply to maintain their level on the register.

He said the resulting pressure for technicians to further develop their skills would prevent them from becoming "stagnant" and dispel the stereotype that technicians' expertise was narrow and inflexible.

Registration would also boost technicians' confidence in applying for promotion or for posts at other institutions, he added, since they would be able to provide objective proof of their range of competencies.

Mr Croft also welcomed the power of the Science Council's "robust" register to attract more graduates into technical careers, and to end the anomaly of technicians being "the only profession not to demonstrate competency".

"You wouldn't let a gas fitter through your door unless he could prove competence by having a Corgi certificate," he noted.

He added that universities' funders and industrial partners were increasingly asking for proof that they possessed the technical expertise to deliver on projects and contracts - particularly in an era in which research relies on increasingly complex "black box" instruments. He speculated that future research excellence frameworks might consider the competence of technicians in their "environment" section.

Mr Croft lamented universities' persistent failure to promote technical careers. He added that the lack of recognition of technicians' contributions to research and teaching had led institutions to allow acknowledged national experts, with decades of experience in particular techniques, to "walk out of the door" without any serious attempt to make sure their knowledge was passed on before they did so.

This "malaise" was exacerbated, according to Mr Croft, by a mistaken belief that the jobs market - particularly in the post-1992 era - was replete with high-quality graduates who would make good technicians.

"Graduates don't have the practical skills because they get spoon-fed: they don't make up their own solutions or prepare the spectrometer. They only do the more academic side of experiments," he said. This meant that the academics recruiting them could "lose six months trying to train them up".

Nor, he said, did a surfeit of money in the system encourage research-intensive universities to invest in technical training: they had typically opted, instead, to "poach" any required expertise from the lower-ranking institutions.

But Mr Croft said that his 30 years of experience in operations management convinced him that universities needed to re-establish formal training schemes for technicians. During the past five years, he has busied himself "putting things in place" so that "when the time was right we could say, look at what we are doing - this could be a good way forward".

No time like the squeezed present

Universities' current financial constraints meant that the right time was now, said Mr Croft, who was given the green light earlier this year by Professor Burnett to put his ideas into action at Sheffield.

His training programme, which is commencing imminently, incorporates three different strands.

One is a two-year apprenticeship scheme for young, unemployed Sheffield residents, with participants earning the minimum wage and a BTEC in science. Any budding "starlets" will also be eligible to join the University of Sheffield's regular two-year trainee technician course, for which five GCSEs is the standard entry requirement.

The university is also establishing an accelerated training programme for graduates, although many of the early modules will be carried out in common with the standard trainees.

The trainees, both graduate and standard, will earn a junior technician's salary, with Mr Croft noting that he is "totally against taking people on essentially as slaves". However, in return he expects them to learn a wide variety of skills, thereby allowing them to become flexible enough to be moved between different roles and faculties as required.

"Somebody working in biology has a similar foundation skill set to someone working in chemistry or IT. So you can start to carefully move people between (those fields)," he said.

Mr Croft hopes this flexibility will also enable universities to retain the expertise gained by technicians whose salaries are provided by external project funding.

Such technicians could also be drawn from his cross-faculty, permanently employed "talent pool" as funding becomes available, rather than being hired merely for a specific grant and then let go, he added.

If his schemes prove successful, Mr Croft said, he would be more than happy to help other universities to replicate them.

He is also working with several other Russell Group institutions interested in establishing similar programmes, and he is trying to address the dearth of training opportunities for mid- and senior-level technicians by establishing a formal inter-university network of acknowledged experts able and willing to provide training to technicians from different institutions.

Mr Croft acknowledged that turning around a "100-year mindset" about the status of technicians would not be achieved overnight, but he insisted that the significant progress that had already been made would be further boosted by his programme.

"I have seen a lot of flawed schemes over the years, but I feel confident saying that I can't see anything in this other than a win-win for everyone," he said.

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