Ludicrously low salaries, job insecurity, and the allure of sexy alternatives are leading UK scientists to beat a hasty retreat from the hallowed halls of academe. That is the conclusion recently drawn from research published by Save British Science (SBS). "The issue of university staffing in science and technology is now in danger of reaching crisis point," according to Ian Haines, chair of the UK Deans of Science.
With fewer candidates to choose from, science faculties are scrambling to fill empty positions at all levels. The SBS survey of the UK Deans of Science found that two-thirds of science faculties have had problems recruiting high-quality students, postdocs, or permanent staff. Things are so bad that earmarked money is going unspent: 57% of the respondents to the survey had either returned grants to funding bodies or been unable to fill permanent academic posts. And 37% of respondents admitted to having appointed students, postdocs, and lecturers who would not have been considered good enough in the past.
Part of the blame falls on the uncertainty faced by young academics. "Things like short-term contracts and insecurity are clearly very important," says Peter Cotgreave, director of SBS. Although policy-makers are keen to point out that city careers, which attract many science graduates, are just as precarious, Cotgreave suggests that insecurity is easier to cope with "if you're getting paid huge salaries and big bonuses." But academics don't receive such generous compensation for their labours.
The starting salary of a new lecturer, around £16,000, is "ludicrous," says Cotgreave. Academics have consistently lost out in pay against other professions, agrees Richard Patrick, dean of graduate studies for science and engineering at the University of Manchester, "and students notice this." Undergraduates who used to opt for a science Ph.D. are tending to go into vocational Master's courses or conversion courses for hot areas such as computer science, he says.
That leaves fewer students to populate the traditional scientific disciplines. Although Patrick admits that there will always be people willing to put up with poor salaries because research "is a sort of vocation," the pool of qualified candidates has gone a bit dry. "There's usually one very good person," he says, "but we'd like to have three."