Roberts calls for science rethink

March 8, 2002

A big increase in funding for academic researchers is essential to keep UK science competitive, an influential report for chancellor Gordon Brown will say.

More permanent university research positions, fewer contract researchers and better salaries are crucial, Sir Gareth Roberts, the report's author and president of Wolfson College, Oxford, told a Universities UK conference on research careers.

Science minister Lord Sainsbury said: "We cannot afford to assume that talented people will rush into research for altruistic reasons, or if they do that they will want to stay. Additional funding would help to consolidate your achievements and I would very much like to see it happen."

The report will be considered by the Treasury in this year's comprehensive spending review and in developing policy.

Sir Gareth concluded: "There is an inadequate flow of skilled science, engineering, technology and mathematics researchers into business and academe."

He said that his report recommends a series of reforms at school and university level but he added that the problems will take time to solve because they are deep-rooted.

"I'm hoping this is a persuasive report," Sir Gareth said, adding that he had discussed it with secretaries of state, including education and industry. He said the government, including the chancellor, now accepted that there was a problem for research and that it was important to find a solution. Recent spending reviews delivered significant funding increases to the research sector and Sir Gareth hopes his report will help maintain this positive trend.

The recommendations fall into three categories:

  • Rewarding excellence at all levels
  • Updating the structure and relevance of education
  • Increasing capital investment, especially in undergraduate science and engineering laboratories.

Sir Gareth wants to reduce the number of contract researchers from 37,000 by creating more permanent positions and being stringent in recruitment procedures. "It is vital that contract research is not permanent but the start for a range of careers," he said.

He will recommend:

  • More prestigious fellowships along the lines of those offered by the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust, allowing five years of "unfettered research" leading ultimately to academic careers
  • The appointment of talented individuals as research associates to form "the glue in a team"
  • Developing transferable skills for researchers who will leave academia for industry.

He described the teaching of science in schools as being in a "parlous state", particularly in mathematics and the physical sciences. These subjects, he said, had also lost appeal at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

He also wants to see higher PhD stipends and more discrimination by universities on who embarks on PhD research. He said it was crucial that universities take a more strategic approach and develop a clearer vision for the contract research pool.

Lord Sainsbury acknowledged that the problem was a worldwide one. But he said he saw this as an opportunity for the United Kingdom to do great science while gaining an economic advantage. He called for more women in science, greater job security for researchers, mobility within Europe and incentives at all levels.

Tony Crook, pro vice-chancellor for academic planning at Sheffield University, said that uncertainty of funding had forced universities to use contract staff. He said this must change - partly because the forthcoming European fixed-term contract directive will force employers to make staff permanent after four years of service.

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