The lucky and the not-so-lucky fellows

August 5, 2005

* Alison Lloyd , Cancer Research UK senior fellow in the Medical Research Council-funded Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology at University College London, is a star researcher.

She wants to continue at UCL, but new rules exclude her and her peers from promotion and may force them to move or close their hard-won research labs early.

Dr Lloyd and others are pushing for a clear and fair policy on the appointment and treatment of senior research fellows. They want UCL to honour its promise of a permanent position for existing staff if their fellowships are renewed.

And they say that new fellows who join departments after the policy change should follow a career path comparable to that of appointed lecturers and be treated as equal to those with permanent positions.

"We have hit a wall with UCL that we didn't know was there," Dr Lloyd said. "Unless it changes, the new scheme means our ability to apply for research funding will be severely curtailed.

"A senior fellowship is a prestigious award. It allows individuals to start their own lab and focus on research. It's a fantastic opportunity and the best environment for my science."

But without the guaranteed salary that a permanent position provides, researchers cannot apply for research grants to sustain their labs.

The lack of clarity and transparency about the future fellows face once their funding runs out is a problem. Dr Lloyd would like to see a more formalised approach that included written agreements.

"We bring a lot to the university, but we are viewed with suspicion," she said.

"As time moves on, it's the university that is not standing up to what it agreed. The university is really falling short. There's a lack of clarity and of thought. This is a great university and it is harming itself."

Louise Cramer , a Royal Society senior fellow also at UCL's Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology, said: "We are both very happy with our funding bodies and think that senior research fellowships are great for UK research.

"But many universities need to develop a clearer and fairer policy on their treatment of fellows."

* David Stephens is one of "the lucky ones".

He returned from Germany, where he held a postdoctoral post, to an MRC non-clinical career development fellowship in biomedical science at Bristol University. The post granted him complete independence and allowed him to set up his own lab. "You can't apply the same statements to any individual institution," he said.

"The biochemistry department at Bristol has supported me very well, with very good guidance and mentoring. It's been made very clear in a very nice way all the way through that there's no planned position at the end of it and that it's up to me to make my own arrangements."

At the same time, he has been fully integrated into the department and been included in all teacher training and staff development courses. But he admits that good procedure is generally found at departmental rather than institutional level.

Dr Stephens, who is about to start an MRC senior fellowship, said: "Towards the end of the fellowship, a lot of focus is put on what you are going to do.

"There is no magic answer, but it does help to have advice on this and communication needs to be there."

He said it was important to see a fellowship as an opportunity rather than a career structure. But he added that more guidance from funding agencies would help. "It would be nice just to get a phone call to see how you are getting on."

* Stephen Taylor returned from postdoctoral work in America to start a five-year fellowship from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council based at Manchester University.

"It allowed me to set up my lab and covered my salary and research costs," Dr Taylor said.

He was "intellectually independent" but was well integrated into the faculty and provided with lab space, an office and access to assistance from PhD studentships.

He was on an equal footing with other members of staff, as opposed to being treated like a glorified postdoc.

"Then I was in a good position to start writing for my own grants and use the fellowship as a platform to build my own research team."

Halfway through his fellowship, the department agreed to underwrite it, which offered job security. But Dr Taylor applied for a senior fellowship as a way of staying in control of his teaching and administrative load and of taking his science in the direction he wanted.

Academic staff in the department were endlessly supportive, Dr Taylor said, and gave advice on where to look for fellowships, how to make applications and what to do in interviews - help he now offers to others.

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