Do we need to do more to improve the working environment of young researchers today?
Absolutely. When I was a young postdoc, I was given freedom to develop my own ideas by my head of department. I was under no pressure to publish papers, although occasionally my boss would say, "Mike, it's about time you wrote this up." I had protected research time. I didn't have a short-term contract, but one that gave me some degree of security so I could plan ahead.
When I look at the more successful academic institutions in this country, they tend to be the ones in which the young researchers have protected time, that have a director who protects and encourages younger researchers. I would mention here the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, where the best young researchers are encouraged to pursue their own ideas. They are protected as long as the quality of work is good. And in these very successful labs there is not this continued emphasis on publications--which, after all, are not the be-all and end-all of science.
My worry at the moment is that about three-quarters of the young academics under 35 years old--who are the active bench researchers--are on fixed-term contracts. In fact, even among researchers aged between 35 and 49, about a quarter remain on fixed-term contracts. Now, what this does is encourage short-termism and conservatism, because they naturally pursue safe areas. They submit proposals in areas that they know, or believe, their peers on the review committees will find acceptable. This doesn't encourage work on long-term problems facing science. We've got to do something about that.
The system of fixed-term contracts also interferes with the freedom of young researchers to pursue their own ideas. I was very concerned, when I was working in Manchester, that more and more of our young researchers are being employed on project grants and programme grants held by our senior researchers. That's fine if the young scientists are allowed to pursue their own ideas and encouraged to pursue avenues that are somewhat peripheral to the programme holder's interest. But often the younger researchers are employed to pursue the ideas of the programme holder.
I suspect that many of the postdoctoral scientists are now being used as super technicians. This has got to stop. We've got to find some way to encourage these young individuals to pursue their own ideas for some time.
This extract is republished (with permission) from an interview that appeared in Odyssey, the Glaxo Wellcome Journal of Innovation in Healthcare . The full text of this interview is available on the Glaxo Wellcome Web site.