The Future of Research Careers

At the one-off joint Education and Policy Lunchbox on 15th October (organised by the British Ecological Society, Biochemical Society and Society for Experimental Biology as part of Biology Week) our specially assembled panel and an audience of around 50 discussed what is in store for research careers and what stability can be expected if one decides to commit to academia long term. Dr Mark Downs, Chief Executive of the Society of Biology, facilitated the discussion between Professor Peter Heathcote, an academic and former Head of the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London, Dr David McAllister, Head of Skills and Careers for the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) speaking on behalf of Research Councils UK (RCUK), and Andy Westwood, the Chief Executive of Guild HE.

Andy began the discussion with a positive: 10 university colleges, including the Royal Agricultural College and Harper Adams University College, are to be given university status. This is part of Government plans to diversify the range of universities available in an attempt to ‘grow Britain out of recession’. He also commended the Coalition Government for producing the Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth, which he hailed as a very powerful and persuasive framework. His thoughts on postgraduate funding and the upcoming spending review however did not have the same rosy outlook.

In the 2010 spending review, Government funding for scientific research from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) did not receive cuts and was frozen. However this ‘flat cash’ settlement has meant that while inflation has risen there is now a lag in research funds. Spending on research and development by Government departments has in fact been cut, for example Defra’s research budget is a fraction of what it was. Andy suggested that researchers, particularly at postgraduate level, will feel the squeeze considerably. Extension of student loans has been suggested as a way to fund postgraduate education but this money still has to come from somewhere. The situation in higher education is looking ‘challenging’ and at present there is no knowing what impact the undergraduate fee reforms will have on the supply of students entering postgraduate research. Treasury forecasts – the implementation of which Andy has particular insight into as a former Treasury advisor – suggest that departments will be asked to make budget cuts of three to four per cent each year following the next spending review. In 2010, BIS could make cuts by removing undergraduate funding from the balance sheet; this option will not be available in the next round. Andy concluded that as a result of this, it is likely that budget cuts will hit postgraduate funding and the science budget much harder that previously.

The opening remarks from David McAllister were concerned with the postgraduate research (PhD) and postgraduate taught (MSc and MRes) degrees, as he explained that the current priority of the Research Councils is to ensure funding for training at PhD level is appropriate, rather than on Masters degrees.
Dr McAllister and Professor Heathcote agreed that support systems for early career researchers (PhD students and postdoctoral researchers) have improved dramatically over the past few years. Organisations such as Vitae now provide resources and training to increase individuals’ ‘ownership’ of their careers. With the numbers of PhDs and postdoctoral researchers (postdocs) sustaining a career in pure academia in decline, it is encouraging that organisations such as RCUK are enabling postgraduates to undertake short-term internships to provide them with industry based experience to gain additional training and skills. Some schemes include international opportunities, which not only facilitate an individual’s networking and professional development but also help foster vital links between like-minded institutes throughout Europe and the rest of the world. Vitae is presently receiving Government support, but again after 2015 and the next general election, the security of this source of funding is uncertain.

Drawing from personal experience, Professor Heathcote built upon Dr McAllister’s earlier point concerning the progression of postgraduate support, to give an overview of the higher education system. In the past, careers advice for PhD students or postdocs was given solely by an individual’s supervisor and was therefore highly variable, with some hard-wired biases towards pursuing life in academia. The signing of the Concordant to Support the Career Development of Researchers increases awareness of alternative career paths, which is essential in the current climate, given intense competition for academic positions and the need for highly skilled workers outside the academic sphere.

Professor Heathcote also expressed some home truths that all aspiring academics should remember:
• Universities are businesses and research is becoming focused on the objectives set by funding bodies;
• Postgraduates and postdoctoral research associates need better training for Fellowship applications including advice on how to prepare for interviews;
• As Research Councils and Government departments prioritise funding or particular initiatives, it is the ‘blue skies, curiosity-driven’ research – the ideas that draw so many people to science in the first place – that will suffer;
• Increasing numbers of universities applying for Athena SWAN Awards as a result of pressure from the Research Councils and the Research Excellence Framework, is encouraging but more needs to be done to proactively nurture female research careers;
• Career ownership must be stimulated: take up for initiatives, such as those run by Vitae could be a lot better.

Clearly funding, or lack thereof, will become an even greater driver in the shaping of future research careers – particularly in academia. Mark Downs encouraged the scientific community to “argue for an increase in the science budget despite the current atmosphere” and despite the perceived difficulty of such a task.
So what of the permeability between industry and academia, surely with fewer postgraduates remaining in academia this is an issue to be addressed? In the past the Research Councils, including BBSRC, have funded schemes to encourage this movement but uptake was low, especially, we heard, for industry to academic career transfers. Perhaps this is not surprising though as the skills developed in industry may not translate easily to those required in active research. Furthermore, individuals who may have very successful records in the industrial setting will not have the track-record of attracting funding – so vital when judging academics – or necessarily the publication record required. The metrics by which universities assess individuals must be adjusted to reflect the greater diversity in potential career paths that now exist. Andy Westwood suggested that an investigation into the industry-academia membrane was required, to address the lack of clarity over this area. Now that universities are required to diversify their funding sources, we hope to see a change and for permeability between these two sectors, which are too often seen as being completely distinct, to rise. The studentships offered by the Research Councils, such as CASE studentships, increasingly allow for industrial placements to take place, enabling early career researchers to become aware of career outside of academia. Andy Westwood recognised the lack of clarity of involved and believed that investigation into the industry-research membrane was required.

One other issue raised for discussion was that of the careers of women, particularly in academia where attrition is recognised as particularly high. All of the learned societies involved in organising the event have programmes of activities to encourage and support women in their science careers, with statistics revealing the extent to which talented women are lost from the profession at later career stages. Consequently, we were very interested in the views of the panel on this matter. The short-term nature of many postdoctoral contracts, the instability this can cause to family life and the need to move around the country in search of these positions can deter many women, and indeed men, from careers in science. However, the panellists suggested that the ‘churn’ associated with shorter-term postdoctoral positions is desirable, to encourage the flow of new ideas and individuals through labs. Andy Westwood commented that the steep competition for Fellowships that require postdocs to relocate constantly for experience and positions “is a bi-product of the labour market policy working at its best.” He commented that “there are presently no skills shortages that [call for] Government intervention, monetary or otherwise, in this area”.

Overall this was an extremely interesting event with wide-ranging discussion. It remains to be seen how academic training and careers will be affected by ongoing government austerity measures in the UK. The learned societies represented, and academics themselves, will need to heed the calls of the panellists and chair to make a positive case for investment in science, despite the difficult economic climate in which these calls will be made.

The next Policy Lunchbox seminar will take place on 5th December, featuring Dr Robert Doubleday, Director of the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy. To register your interest in attending please contact