UK faces biomedical ‘brain drain’, study warns

One in three scholars in field ‘deeply concerned’ about future research career prospects

May 14, 2017
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The UK biomedical community is facing a potential “brain drain”, according to new research that finds that one in three researchers is planning on leaving the field.

In a survey of 900 biomedical scientists, about 30 per cent said that they were “deeply concerned” about their long-term future in research, with large numbers citing a lack of job opportunities, intense competition for permanent positions and relatively low salaries.

The study, “A survey of working conditions within biomedical research in the United Kingdom”, looked at scholars at three stages of the academic career ladder: doctoral students, postdoctoral researchers and principal investigators (PI). It found that only 16 per cent of respondents were receiving an annual salary of more than £35,000 and even at the PI level the average salary was just £41,000 a year – “relatively low” considering the “level of experience required to reach such a position”.

Moreover, 37 per cent of PhD students said that they worked more than 50 hours in the week preceding the survey, with more than three-quarters of postdoctoral researchers saying that they worked more than 40 hours. Just under one in five PIs said they worked more than 70 hours.

Among PhD students, who made up more than half the respondents, only 5 per cent said they were “comfortable” about their long-term prospects in research, with only 7 per cent of postdoctoral researchers concurring.

The paper, published on open access platform F1000Research, received 300 personal testimonials from researchers, including complaints that they “don’t make enough money”, the field is “too competitive, and there aren’t enough jobs”, and the work-life balance was unsustainable.

“Continuing in research”, the study concludes, “was not only gambling with their future, but…it was also a bad bet to make in the first place.

“To avoid lasting damage to the biomedical research agenda in the UK, addressing such concerns should be a major priority.”

Nick Riddiford, author of the study and postdoctoral research fellow at the Curie Institute in Paris, said that his findings echoed those of a 2016 survey by Nature, which found that almost 40 per cent of 12,000 respondents worked more than 60 hours a week on average, and nearly two-thirds have considered quitting research.

He told Times Higher Education that while these issues were slowly being addressed in countries such as the US and Germany, there was little more than “whispered conversations in corridors” in the UK. If left unchecked, he added, the “ramifications” for the biomedical community could be severe.

“If you have 30 per cent leaving the biomedical sector, there’s a huge brain drain, because you’re losing people at the most talented part of their career,” he said. “Senior postdocs have been working for maybe three years [at that level, and] three or four years as a PhD student. [They are] very efficient and valuable members of the scientific community.

“If they’re feeling like they’re squeezed out, there will be ramifications of that; it will be felt in the community. Just how drastic that will be is up for debate.”

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