Ask Sir Robert Part I

In August and September, Next Wave UK invited you the readers to tell Sir Robert May what was on your minds. As the letters published this week and next show, your concerns are as varied as you are. In one of his last acts as Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Robert has given us replies to the issues raised. Although his term of office at the Office of Science and Technology is now over, he will take up the Presidency of the Royal Society at the beginning of December--another role at the heart of the scientific establishment from which he will continue, we have no doubt, to influence science policy.

Join our forum to have your say on these topics and any other aspects of science policy which you feel need addressing--we'll try to ensure that policy-makers hear your views!

Dear Sir Robert,

Fresh, original ideas for grant applications often come from the freshest people in science, i.e., PhD students and postdocs. Why then are they denied to be an applicant and get credit for it by government grant-giving bodies like the Research Councils? This kind of recognition would be very helpful to pursue an academic career.

Yours sincerely,Marcel Kuiper, PhD GIBiol

Dear Marcel,

I appreciate and understand the great importance contract research staff attach to this issue. I think there could be all sorts of reasons why the Research Councils bar grant applicants from bidding for their own salaries. It doesn't actually seem unreasonable to me to limit access to grants to those who have been selected by the system to hold established academic posts. This is, incidentally, the virtually universal practice in the United States.

Having successfully outraged you and Next Wave readers generally by saying that, let me add that I think it is totally deplorable if contract researchers do not get full recognition for the work they put into a grant application. It is so manifestly important for their immediate personal development and longer-term careers, wherever those may lie. Co-principal investigator status is one route to this (although I appreciate its unsatisfactory aspects).

I'm not convinced it would make a huge difference if the funding system was changed. What we are seeing instead is another symptom of the widespread, institutionalised neglect of career development. The issue is first and foremost one for the employers (which includes the grant holders) as they have the most impact on the standing of their employees, but I think research funders, peer review, journals, and so forth might be able to encourage better practice. I'd be interested to hear any ideas.

I also want to put in a plug for the review of research funding which the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has just published. You can see its proposals on the HEFCE Web site. They include recommendations that in the future, in order to receive research funding, institutions must meet certain standards in supervising PhDs and managing research staff. I think this is crucially important, but the proposals are out for consultation, and implementation will be influenced by the response of all those in the academic community. So if contract research staff in English institutions think these things matter, I hope they will say so as loudly, clearly, and collectively as they can inside and outside their institutions.

Yours,Bob

Dear Sir Robert,

My question revolves around the policing of the Research Concordat (RC). It appears that the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), whilst a signatory to the RC, does not believe that it needs to be applied to the contract research workers at its own institutes. Strong rumours circulating BBSRC institutes suggest that the BBSRC central office wants to make it impossible to employ postdocs or technicians over the age of 35 on short-term contracts and bar postdocs/technicians who have already been funded on two consecutive contracts from being eligible for employment on further short-term contracts. This goes against the spirit of the Concordat in no uncertain terms and leaves a large number of good research workers in the lurch. Such a policy is not only ageist, but would also discriminate against anyone taking a career break (so much for the BBSRC's family friendly policy) and those who for other reasons are already disadvantaged, e.g., the disabled. (I am female, disabled, 38, and have been employed on five consecutive short-term contracts. ... I'm also recognised worldwide as an authority in my field. Luckily my institute has been supportive in the past.) Having seen what the Medical Research Council has done in response to the Concordat, which is admirable, it seems that the BBSRC for unknown reasons wishes to use the Concordat as a way to get rid of its experienced contract researchers.

Do you think that the Research Councils' response to the Concordat is adequate? Is the government keeping an eye on the behaviour of its Research Councils? Would it accept the BBSRC viewpoint that the over 35's or those who have already had two contracts should have no further prospect of employment? Is it sensible to train PhD students for a career of 6 years?

Yours sincerely,Dr. Andy Prescott

Dear Andy,

Unfortunately or not, I have never been formally responsible for the Research Councils during my term as Chief Scientific Adviser, and now that I'm moving on I shall be even less so! Also, I'm unenthusiastic about discussing rumours and I'm not aware that the BBSRC has the designs you mention. So instead I shall base my reply to your--extremely interesting--letter on first principles.

The fundamental problem that I would hope the research careers Concordat has been trying to address is responsibility for career management and development. Historically, far too many people have entered research to work on a succession of projects with one or more employers, and there has been no clarity about where they're headed, the long-term opportunities and limitations, and how best to help them deal with these circumstances. The staff themselves have a responsibility in all of this, and you plainly recognise that, though for a variety of reasons--including the motions of the academic conveyor belt--not all do.

So, to some extent, almost anything which breaks the momentum and forces attention on management and career development could be a good thing. However, I think the sorts of mechanisms you describe would prove blunt instruments. If they simply relieved research leaders of responsibility for developing their staff, then I'd see them as seriously retrograde. If they were accompanied by considerably greater subtlety, sensitivity, and support, then something like them might be workable.

You ask, "Is it sensible to train PhD students for a career of 6 years?" I find the question curious. Many, in fact the majority of, PhDs move into jobs outside academia or research. Rather a lot of them do so because they want to. They and their employers seem to value the PhD, though I note that UK employers are rather reluctant to match that recognition with significantly higher starting pay.

Yours,Bob