Science is Vital frustrated by lack of action since careers summit

By Penny Sarchet
Research Fortnight
28-11-2012

No progress has been made on improving career options for researchers since a high-profile summit organised by science minister David Willetts in October 2011, campaign group Science is Vital has said.

The meeting followed a report from Science is Vital that revealed concern over a lack of permanent jobs in research in the UK. Jenny Rohn, founder of the group, says the UK enjoys an international reputation for punching above its weight but its ability to produce quality for less depends on a workforce of researchers trapped in a cycle of short-term contracts.

Rohn, a cell biologist, has worked on a rolling three-month contract at University College London since February and faces having her contract terminated in January. She says that the UK science system is run on short-term contracts and that very few PhD holders will ever secure a permanent position.

“There are no consequences to science as an engine as a result of this problem, it’s a human cost,” says Rohn. The system seems immoral, she says, but it functions well. “The UK punches above its weight in Nobel prizes and papers published and we can do this on a shoestring budget compared with other countries—but at what cost?”

“If you’re clever and resourceful, you could circle in this postdoctoral holding pattern for years, by going from job to job and accepting the instability,” says Rohn. “A lot of women put off having a family because they can’t see how to fit it in with these short-term contracts.”

Rohn says that at last year’s summit, the main solutions suggested were warning people of the problems with academic careers, and offering researchers training options for jobs outside of academia.

Science is Vital suggests laboratories could address the problem by offering permanent contracts to fewer but more highly skilled research staff. “PhD students are useful but they don’t have as many skills,” says Rohn. “A really experienced professional scientist is worth several of them, so, in an ideal world, labs would be slightly smaller and with more expertise.”

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