Underfunded? Someone Out There Is Listening

"There is no other profession where at 30 you have to seriously think about changing your career course," states Julie Cooke, a postdoc in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology at University College London (UCL). Katie Woolley is a couple of years behind Cooke--a Ph.D. student at the college--but she is already just as cynical: "Before you've even finished your Ph.D.," she says, "you know the odds are against you." Is anyone listening?

Labour backbencher Ian Gibson, M.P., is. This week, he introduced a Private Members' Bill to the House of Commons--a bill aimed dead-on at the problems of young scientists. Specifically, it seeks the formation of a National Science Strategy Council that would, among other objectives, double the level of national government funding for science, engineering, medicine, and technology R&D by 2010. But although many in the scientific and academic communities support Gibson's bill wholeheartedly, not everyone is as sure as Gibson that, if passed, the bill will address the problems of young people like Woolley and Cooke.

The reason there is so much support in Labour for increasing the funding of British science is that the problems of young scientists like Woolley and Cooke have become very public. To cite a recent example, speaking at an event organized by the pressure group Save British Science, Astronomer Royal Professor Sir Martin Rees this week voiced his concern that the lack of a long-term view from successive governments means there is a serious danger that the cohort of young academic researchers needed to replace the older generation will fail to materialize. Directly supporting Gibson's bill, Rees said: "From the perspective of a young academic, a career in university research does not look attractive" because of the double whammy of low salaries and lack of job security.

Professor David Newland, deputy vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge, agreed with Rees, describing the United Kingdom's young researchers as "underpaid, undervalued, and overstressed." He professed to know of virtually no young researchers with contracts of longer than 3 years, a situation he considers entirely unacceptable. And yet he noted that at present it is impossible to do anything about the situation because there has been no promise from the government that long-term funding would be in place.

While many at the meeting spoke in fervent support of the bill's intent to build long-term increases into the system, a number of concerns were raised about its efficacy at attacking the specific plight of the United Kingdom's young scientists. Dr. Philip Wright, director of scientific affairs for Glaxo Wellcome, warned that even doubling the science budget would only be addressing past underinvestment. In 1998, he pointed out, Japan increased its science budget by an amount greater than the total spending of the U.K. Research Council.

This concern prompted Woolley, Cooke, and a third UCL student, Philippa Bailey, to question just how the added funds would be spent. But this is where those at the meeting found it difficult to provide any firm answers. One suggestion was a mechanism by which grant income could be pooled to provide for the future of all contract researchers within a department, or indeed a university. The feeling among the young UCL researchers was that grants need to be more flexible and less tightly tied to specific projects so that young researchers have more freedom to develop their talents in whichever way a project takes them. In fact, when it comes down to it, what these--and no doubt many other--young scientists want is simple: job security.


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