Scientific shortfall

November 12, 1999

The Bett report underestimates the staff crisis in science, says John Kingman

This country's competitiveness is being undermined by difficulties experienced by universities and colleges in recruiting and retaining the brightest minds in science, engineering and technology. Unless urgent action is taken to improve academic pay and conditions, the United Kingdom's world-class science base will suffer irreparable damage.

It is widely acknowledged that the UK economy will rely increasingly on commercial enterprises based on science and technology. Essential to such a knowledge-based economy are higher education institutions, which provide many of the breakthroughs that underpin new technologies and which train the skilled workforce required outside academia.

Fostering excellence in the science base is a prerequisite for economic success. But if universities and colleges cannot offer attractive pay and conditions, they will be unable to recruit and retain top scientists into academic posts.

In June, the Bett committee published its report on pay and conditions in the higher education sector. It rightly concludes that "the recruitment, retention and motivation of sufficient staff of the right quality are essential if the vision of sustaining and improving a world-class system of HE in this country is to be realised".

But it understates the urgency of the situation. Based on a survey of 174 institutions, it states that recruitment and retention problems are not widespread among universities and colleges. On the contrary, they are. In the principal scientific disciplines, higher education institutions in the UK are on the verge of a staff crisis.

About 30 per cent of academics in physics departments and 28 per cent in chemistry departments were older than 55 in 1996-97 and will retire before 2007. It will prove impossible to find quality replacements for these staff unless institutions offer competitive rates of pay at all levels and attractive prospects of career development. Members of the recent Royal Society working group into staff pay and conditions were aware of posts, ranging from junior researcher to professor, that have already proved difficult to fill with high-calibre individuals. The Bett committee sent its survey questionnaires to heads of personnel and allowed just over three weeks for responses. Although three-quarters of institutions returned their forms, few provided information about staff turnover and unfilled vacancies. A more thorough survey is needed to reveal the true extent of recruitment and retention problems.

Such a survey would need to investigate whether heads of departments are happy that enough high-quality candidates apply for academic posts. It is not enough to have competent researchers and teachers. Universities and colleges must be able to attract scientists and engineers who have the potential to be leaders in their disciplines. As the Bett committee correctly pointed out, this can be achieved only by improving pay and conditions at the top and bottom of the academic ladder.

Universities and colleges have started to lose on two fronts in the competition for staff. Pay and conditions in higher education have fallen so far behind those of commerce and industry that too many of the brightest and best scientists are turning their backs on universities and colleges for good.

In addition, UK higher education institutions are operating in a global market and face challenges from overseas universities whose lucrative contracts can coax top-class scientists to their campuses. Some UK institutions are able to secure high-quality candidates for established posts only by offering starting salaries at higher levels in the pay scales than ever before. This extra cost is met by reducing the money available for other purposes, such as library books and laboratory equipment.

To maintain a world-class higher education sector and science base, more money is needed. Some must come from government. Malcolm Wicks, minister for lifelong learning, last week repeated the government's view that academic pay rates are a matter only for institutions and unions. That is not good enough.

If the government continues to force institutions to make efficiency gains of at least 1 per cent a year, after a decade of reducing unit funding per student by more than one-third, it will be the economy that suffers. The last comprehensive spending review brought a welcome injection of funds into the science base. The government must now ensure that higher education institutions can be staffed with enough high-calibre scientists and engineers to translate this investment into world-class research and teaching.

Sir John Kingman is vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol and a member of the council of the Royal Society. He chaired the society's working group on academic pay and conditions.

* Does the government provide the pay and conditions that will keep the British science base strong?

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