Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 160-168)



  160. Pretend you are one of them. What would you say?
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) I would say, make sure that you have a good supervisor. Good supervisors—

  161. Are hard to find.
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) A good supervisor is even more important than a good project, I think. It really is important that you work alongside somebody that you can continue to learn from. You have got to position yourselves to be lucky in this world and I really say that to all my colleagues.

Dr Iddon

  162. In other words work with the right people.
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) Work with the right people that you continue to learn from.


  163. There are people who have come and said, "I have got a great supervisor and I have learned from them and everything is just great. I will go happy in two years' time." Is that it?
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) For some people, you know, two years working with a stimulating person, then going off to the United States perhaps to seek some new pastures and then trying to find work where you can exploit that research—

  164. Ah, brave new world this is really.
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) It is. There are opportunities there. Many of the people who stay in academe, and this goes for lecturers and professors too, do so because they love their subject. That is one of the things you always have to remember, that academics are in a very privileged position very often, that they are working on the subject that they love and they are paid for it—not enough, I know. I have said more about that in my report.

  Chairman: There are a few of them sitting around the table who have got pretty fed up in the university system operating cuts year after year after year, and that is probably why they are here.

Mr McWalter

  165. Even if people have had the pleasure of working with an inspirational supervisor, and I was fortunate enough myself to work with someone who provided me with the enthusiasm and inspiration and so on that has lasted me the rest of my life, nevertheless, I think that there were major structural flaws in the system so even those who are saying, "This is the best two years of my life and I have been incredibly lucky" would also say, "That is because somebody protected me from what was actually a pretty rotten system", and I think to treat people in the way that we have been hearing this afternoon is to treat them in a pretty rotten way.
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) I agree with you.

  166. We cannot legislate or plan for the times when it goes well. We know it goes well sometimes, but too much of it goes ill and that is what this Committee is about.
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) I do agree with you and we must not have situations like the ones we have heard of recurring. As I say, after a couple of years being on probation if you like, like all people tend to have in industry, a real judgement has to be made as to what is the best career path for that person. It really is important that they stay in a job where they can continue to be challenged. It was Robert Frost I think who said, "The brain is a wonderful organ. It never stops working from the time you wake up to the time you get into the office", and you really need to try and find a job where you can carry on there and be happy and then you will produce much better work. I am rather more optimistic than that rather gloomy view I think that you have heard this afternoon.

Mr Heath

  167. I do not want to burst that bubble of optimism but what I do find a little depressing is that you suggest that things will be changed in two years' time but that that will be because of an EU directive and because of changes in the requirements of funding organisations. I would much prefer to see British universities change their employment practice because it has to be the right thing to do. I am rather discouraged that you feel it is only by the application of a large stick from outside that we are going to get to that point.
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) Most people will say of course at the end of the day that that is why they are doing it. It is like multi-disciplinary research. Unless you push money in the way of multi-disciplinary research it does not happen so, although people might say, "Oh, well, we agree with it", people will tend to stay in their own compartments. The way universities have broken out of that is to fund research work only if it is multi-disciplinary. In the same way I really do believe that money talks in rewarding human resource strategies. It is going to accelerate things if nothing else. Like you, I would like to think that all vice chancellors signed up to this new Concordat.

  168. And actually did it.
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) And actually did it. When you have another committee of this kind in three or five years' time, I hope that the number of instances that you have heard of today will be reduced to a minimum.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for coming. As you know, we will be putting a report out about education in schools from the ages of 14 to 19 which we hope will be of some significant effect too in the next generation of young people. I hope that the Roberts Report mark two will ensure that there is a world for them to inherit where research does not get cut off in their prime. Thank you very much for coming.

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