Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Dr Angelina Turner, Department of Clinical Veterinary Medicine, University of Cambridge

  I am currently a post-doctoral researcher in molecular biology at the University of Cambridge on a three year contract. I have worked in five different research groups in the UK in various capacities since 1990 (one in Oxford and four in Cambridge) and the vast majority of the people I have worked with have been on short term contracts of three years or less (in excess of 80 per cent). The only exception is the lecturers, one per group. I am writing in a personal capacity to give you some thoughts and observations which I hope you will find useful.

Does the preponderance of short term researchers really matter?

  As a post-doc myself I shall confine my discussion mainly to what I see as the problems of having short term post-docs. Currently there seems to be a great shortage of good applicants for post-doctoral positions. I believe this is largely due to the lack of career structure and prospects for researchers. This is obviously a problem for the research groups who lack good staff. Furthermore, even when you have a good post-doc at the moment it is not assured that you will go on being able to employ them. This leads to a lack of continuity in the research groups, a lack of adequate supervision for more junior staff, and a reduction in productivity. Even when you do get a good new researcher, they have to spend time familiarising themselves with the systems in the particular laboratory and the knowledge in the field so there is considerable loss of productivity compared with the case when a good researcher who is already part of the team is able to stay. I think these problems do place the UK at a competitive disadvantage.

  The advantage of short term contracts for a post-doctoral worker is that it does make it easier to move from lab to lab and this can be good for the scientist at early stages in their career. However, if too many switches of field are made one can be a "jack of all trades, master of none" and too frequently this is the case. However I believe the greatest problem for the workers themselves is that of age discrimination, as salaries provided in grants do not cover post-docs over the age of 30. This causes low morale and results in many researchers leaving the country or leaving science as I have discussed this below.

Is there evidence that the present situation causes good researchers to leave?

  I believe there is much evidence that the current situation causes good researchers to leave. The morale at the post-doctoral level is quite low as no-one knows whether they will get another contract even if their work is good. Of the eight post-docs who have been in the groups that I have worked in, three have moved to labs in the USA (all reluctantly), one is giving guided tours to tourists while looking for a job, one has moved to management in science industry , and one has left science. I think the country really needs to consider whether the tax payers funding of our studies has been well used when five to eight are no longer working in any kind of science in this country.

  The situation causes low morale at the post-doctoral level. It is not always possible to prove yourself in a single post-doc position, because of the nature of science. There seems to be an acute shortage of applicants to post-doc positions which means that even rather poor applicants can get a first and even a second post-doc position with relative ease. However, there is often a big problem, even for good post-docs after that, because of age related pay. Unless a grant is written for a named post-doc the salary allocated does not cover that of a post-doc over 30 years of age. Thus it is not possible for a research group leader to employ someone over this age, even if they are the best (or only suitable) applicant for the job. If the older post-doc is employed then the length of the contract usually has to be shortened. This is difficult in all cases and may be entirely unsuitable for some kinds of research, a case in point is work on prion diseases or tuberculosis... since both of these diseases develop slowly it is very difficult to achieve anything in a three year grant, let alone a shortened one. An example in my own department is a very experienced post-doc who is currently working on prion diseases. This lady is truly dedicated and an excellent scientist. Due to short term contracts she had to change field from working on Herpes Simplex Virus to BSE, but has made the transition beautifully and is currently making a significant contribution to the field of prion diseases. As most experienced post-docs are, she is also pivotal in the running of the whole research group day to day, and in helping the three PhD students with their many practical questions. However, because she is 38 years old, it is very difficult to get her another grant. I share an office with her and have seen her get more and more discouraged as grants get turned down because the funding bodies are unwilling to pay for someone senior. Yet the productivity of this experienced post-doc is undoubtedly at least twice that of an average junior post-doc as the whole department would agree. This lady will be lost to British science, and with her all her expertise will go too unless the system is changed fast. I also know of several other experienced post-docs who have already gone. Most of these do not particularly have an ambition to become lecturers, or to lead research groups more than they already do... they just want to be allowed to continue doing the job they are trained for and are doing very well. They understand that they will not be paid salaries as high as equivalent workers in industry, and many of them are willing to have the difficulties of a short term contract. But they do not want to be discriminated against because of their age. From my vantage, as a relatively young post-doc, this age discrimination is the worst thing about the system.

  I believe we harm our research groups and efforts greatly by losing experienced post-docs. The principal investigators on projects are usually people with permanent positions such as lecture ships. These responsibilities take up a great deal of time, as do the various safety and other committees, administrative jobs and grant writing that they all have to do. It is very rare therefore that a principal investigator is actually able to do laboratory work, and certainly I have never come across one that spent more than the equivalent of one day a week actually doing bench work. This means that the post-docs are the people actually doing the experiments. They are the people who are supervising the PhD students to the point of looking down the microscope and telling them whether what they see looks unusual or not and advising them on particular safety precautions when they see a particular chemical is about to be used. A good supervisor will help with overall strategy providing valuable, input, ideas and feedback, but the post-doc makes sure the lab is running smoothly and is the first port of call for questions. This said, it should be obvious that a junior post-doc who just finished their PhD a few months before themselves, is not as good for the team, for the future of the research students or for the output of the labs research, as a more experienced post-doc. Of course there must be space for junior post-docs, but I believe there is also a need for many more senior post-docs if our research and training is to be as productive and cost-effective as possible in this country.

  Another big effect of the "post-doc age trap" is low morale. Although most post-docs quite like their jobs, there is a feeling that, no matter how well they do it, it will not be possible to continue for long. Moving up to be a lecturer is only an option for a few, and anyway, it is not at all the same job as discussed above and many do not particularly want it. I do know post-docs who have tried to move sideways to get technicians posts, but this is often difficult as they cannot be paid less even though they would choose to take the cut. Post-docs feel cheated by the system that has encouraged them to invest long years of their life training (both in the degree and the PhD and then in further work as post-docs) but then has pushed them out in the cold because they reach the grand age of 35! These people were generally the cream of our undergraduate science students too, and they are very bitter.

  The poor morale does tend to get passed to the PhD students. Again, these students are generally very able and enjoy the science they do during their studies, but many promising researchers decide to drop out and change career as they finish their PhDs. Of the eight PhD students who have finished in our department in the 2.5 years I have been there, four have returned to being vets, two have taken post-doc positions in the USA because the career structure is perceived as better there and because the labs are more productive in terms of number of papers you can publish in a year, one is retraining as a medical doctor, and another as a patent lawyer. The shortage of people to fill post-doc positions is not going to be met with this record!

What are the implications for the researchers and their careers?

  For the post-docs themselves the implications are mixed, since the current system funds projects and not people, most post-docs will move from place to place. Those who do not wish to change location so often, perhaps because of family commitments, usually find themselves moving from field to field. For young post-docs finding a new position is relatively easy as there are plenty of places going and supervisors are so desperate to get their positions filled. This change can be quite interesting, but is also frustrating as you are unable to fully use the background, experience, skills and knowledge you gained in previous projects. Such chopping and changing is usually not good for the post-doc's career or their productivity because of the lost time as one comes up to speed with a new field and a new department, often this would take a year or more of a three year contract. Then, by the third year of the contract it is necessary to start thinking hard about the next position. The short term nature of the work is particularly destabilising for post-docs with families. and marriages as you would anticipate and results in many post-docs constantly "looking to leave" what is perceived to be "a sinking ship".

What would be the right balance between contract and permanent research staff in universities and research institutions?

  I would certainly agree that some short term research contracts are desirable as they do allow staff to transfer between institutions and it is good to leave room for new blood. However, science departments could also benefit greatly from a bit more continuity, people actually doing bench work who have the skills and experience accumulated over the years. At least in biology this rarely happens. I think in an ideal situation each research group would have the principal investigator (usually also a lecturer) and a permanent research worker. I realise this is a long way from the current situation and would be difficult to achieve as most of the research funding is project based and does not invest in individuals. I suggest that currently we may be trying to fund too many PhDs as we are unable to supervise them properly at the bench, as they are leaving science in droves because of lack of prospects, and as companies actually tend to employ more scientific technical staff than PhDs and thus their hard earned qualifications may be hampering rather than helping them.

Has the concordat and research careers initiative made a difference?

  I am unable to answer this question adequately since I was not a post-doc in 1996. I have received a booklet on staff development courses in the university, but few have any relevance to preparing people for careers outside of academic research.

How should policy move forward?

  As I have indicated above, I believe the greatest and most pressing problem is to address the age discrimination against older and more experienced post-docs in the system. This is needed urgently to stem the flow of good scientists leaving the country or leaving science. I do not know how this could be done, but suggest that funding needs to be put aside so that when an older post-doc is employed extra salary can be added to the grant. The ceiling should be that of the post-doc salary scale. Of course this will cost more, and there will be fewer grants awarded because of this, but I believe there will also be more productivity. This will do something immediately to improve morale and stop good scientists leaving the profession.

  In the longer term a different balance between permanent and contract research staff is needed. The optimal ratio may be different in different subjects, but in biology where the nature of the work is such that you really do need trained staff actually doing bench work, I think you need at least one permanent research worker per research group. To achieve this you probably need to create a different grade, a "state funded researcher". A new system for proper appraisal and assessment of these research workers might also be required, based partly on their individual productivity (perhaps related to publication record) and partly on their assessed value to the research group and department as a whole, since these people would be chosen for their ability to contribute to the team and not to progress to the lecturer grade (which tends to be done on publication record and maybe grant writing ability). These researchers might well not be on a completely tenured position, but there should be every expectation that adequate performance would lead to refunding of contracts, maybe in five or 10 year blocks. There would be no discrimination against older researchers. The researchers could work on someone else's grant or write their own grants to get equipment and consumables money for research. As there would be no need for a salary component such grants would be much cheaper to fund.

  Since there seems to be an expectation in the research concordat that most contract research workers can not anticipate a life long career in academic research, I think there needs to be much more aggressive work to prepare us better to fulfil the needs of other employers such as industry. If industry do not need so many PhDs, and academia do not need them, then we must question whether we are training too many. PhD students are cheap labour, but they are also untrained labour and not necessarily very productive and cost-effective. The PhD programmes should be altered to reflect the needs of industry more, and probably so should the post-docs contracts. For example it might be obligatory for all students to spend a month work experience in industry.

20 June 2002

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