Ask Sir Robert Part II

Ask Sir Robert Part II

In August and September Next Wave U.K. invited you, the readers, to tell Sir Robert May what was on your minds. As the letters published this week and last week 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,

Marie Curie (MC) fellowships are research training grants awarded by the European Commission (EC) to young European researchers (mainly at the postdoctoral level) to perform research and obtain further training outside their home country. In total 8000 MC fellowships will be awarded during the 5th Framework. The United Kingdom is the most popular destination among Marie Curie fellows, with about a third of all fellows coming here. Yet U.K. researchers seem to be very reluctant to participate in the scheme. For example, only 82 out of 1540 applicants (5.6%) came from the United Kingdom in the last round of applications.

Do you consider a more balanced two-way exchange of researchers between the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe important, partly in order to reduce brain drain to the United States? If so, what steps does the U.K. government plan to take to improve the mobility of young British scientists within Europe?

At present the voice of young researchers does not seem to find sufficient response among science policy-makers, although the United Kingdom's scientific output relies heavily on these researchers' productivity. How do you see the role of young scientists in shaping the United Kingdom's science policy? Does the government plan to systematically increase young researchers' involvement in giving advice and making decisions regarding issues such as long-term funding of research and the structure of academic careers?

Yours sincerely,Maziar Nekovee and Oliver SchwickerathMarie Curie Fellowship Association

Dear Maziar and Oliver,

Happily, I am well acquainted with the Marie Curie Fellowship programme and have had the pleasure of meeting a number of fellows, an experience I found particularly rewarding. You are right that young U.K. researchers are reluctant to take up the excellent opportunities offered under the scheme, and I am among many who are slightly baffled as to why. I believe there is no single reason. Anyway, let me make a couple of points relating to the fellowships.

First, over the past year the Office of Science and Technology (OST) has made a special effort to publicise the opportunities offered by the scheme to U.K. researchers through promotional activities, including an excellent leaflet widely distributed to universities and research groups as well as to individual researchers. The U.K. Improving the Human Potential Web site, maintained by OST, also gives a useful overview of the fellowship programme and provides advice on where to go for guidance on applying

Second, as it made clear in the recently published "Science and Innovation White Paper," the U.K. government will be taking an active part in work about to start on the creation of a European Research Area. This was kicked off by the Lisbon Summit of the Heads of Government in March, and it will include action by the European Commission and Member States to identify and remove barriers to the mobility of researchers in the E.U. The OST will be working closely with other government departments on the U.K. input.

Finally, you got in a question about the voice of young researchers in policy-making. As chief scientific adviser I have met a large number and wide range of young researchers in the United Kingdom and overseas, and I have tried to inject their views into the highest levels of government (for example, in a seminar with Tony Blair at No. 10 and on other such occasions), occasionally through face-to-face meetings, and more often indirectly. I believe the process also needs to start from the bottom up, if I may put it like that. If you want to see the sort of thing I mean, I suggest you take a look at how the University of Bristol is beginning to use its intranet to communicate with its research staff and get their views. I acknowledge that all of this is only a start, and I would be interested to explore other ways of increasing the interaction productively. The Next Wave Web site strikes me as an example.


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