The future rides on real commitment to science

August 13, 1999

In the second of our summer series on education at the century's end, Jean-Patrick Connerade discusses the future for young researchers

Is Britain well prepared to remain a leading nation in the next millennium? The answer is not clear. Our nation is relatively small, despite its great history and some quaint traditions, but it will be taken seriously in the future only if it remains able to innovate in science and technology.

Unfortunately, a good fraction of the British establishment is still locked in a Victorian debate about whether science is useful at all, and how much nicer the world might be without it. This lack of commitment is our greatest weakness. We seem to be forgetting our own history and how Britain became a great trading nation by first solving the problem of the longitude.

It would be absurd to lay the blame for this attitude entirely on the government. Rather, it is our view of the world that needs to be modernised. It is apparent even in our scientific folklore. Only two British scientists are deemed to be of banknote status: Newton and Faraday (now Faraday is being replaced by Elgar: will we be down to one?). The former is supposed to have been inspired by the fall of an apple and the latter is for ever famous for not having understood equations. The enduring popularity of such slightly childish tales still protects Joe Public from the reality of science and technology today.

This is not much of a message for young people. There is a long life of hard slog with plenty of mountains to climb before anyone can claim to be a professional scientist. It is essential for a nation to invest at a serious level in research and in education or it simply falls behind.

Against this background of public misunderstanding, how do we recruit young scientists today and how can we train those who will invent our future? This is perhaps the most important issue we face. There will always be plenty of young people whose natural talents lead them into science and technology and it had always been assumed that the best of them would stay to promote the health and vigour of our research. That is no longer a safe assumption.

Most research in the United Kingdom is done in universities. The success of science and technology in changing the world has created a huge demand for scientifically and technically literate graduates. They are finding jobs in the applications of science at starting salaries that cannot be matched in university research. This is, in many respects, an excellent development. However, it has one bad effect. There is no market force in the higher education sector with as much financial pull as private industry. Consequently, the best people are leaving, often against their will. They are pushed out of publicly supported science by the need to pay mounting debts arising from their education.

The hope is that their success in society will further increase the demand for a good science-based education. In the long term, this must be true. But the reality is that fewer young graduates will be willing to stay on for higher degrees in science. Worse still, we may even get the wrong ones. We may soon be catering only for those who can afford it or for those who cannot find the well-paid jobs. If this trend were to set in, it could only damage our science base. Already, we rely more and more on a very distinguished but ageing population of established academics. It is crucial to train the right people.

Our funding system for science is already geared to maximise the influence of academic staff and minimise the role of the postdoc. Apart from a minority of research fellows, only established academics can apply to research councils, and postdocs have to hang around like casual labourers awaiting the outcome of applications. Only a fraction of young scientists enjoy any freedom to steer their research. This rather ponderous system could still function effectively were it not for the lack of continuity that plagues British research. At times, because of the chronic shortage of cash, the funding seems to be ruled by fashion.

There will be a sudden spate of retirements in the next few years because so many academics are now in their mid to late-fifties. Very little thought has been given to what will happen then and how to avoid recruiting all their replacements from the same cohort. When I once attempted to raise this question at a Foresight meeting, it was immediately ruled out of court as "too general and not within the scope or remit of the exercise". What kind of foresight is that?

We cannot afford to take such a short-term view. The combination of a high demand in society for our best-trained graduates with the need to fill many academic posts in the sciences rather urgently could have a disastrous effect on the quality of future recruitment unless steps are taken now to avert the impending crisis. Some areas feel this pressure already, most notably in electronics and the information-technology sectors, where our universities simply cannot afford to hire and retain the best young people.

It is very important to appreciate that the science of the nation is like a chain running through this century and into the next millennium. Like all chains, it is only as strong as its weakest link. For one of these links, our generation is responsible, but if we get it wrong, then the consequences will be felt, not so much by us, as by the next generations, far into the future. Taking a long-term view is a question of survival.

That is why we should be taking action now to retain at least a proportion of our best young scientists in research. We must make it worth their while to stay and to compete for academic vacancies. Above all, we must make such positions attractive and find the right way to tell young researchers and inventors that they are valued by society. No education system can function well without attracting top-quality teachers. This is especially true in higher education. Unless we are careful now, we could be forced to hire the wrong people tomorrow, which would spell disaster for UK plc.

Jean-Patrick Connerade is Lockyer professor of physics at Imperial College, London, and a member of the executive committee of Save British Science.

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