The battle to persuade Britain's best science graduates to stay in the lab and take a PhD hotted up this month with the announcement of a new predoctoral fellowship programme from the Medical Research Council. Tenable in the MRC's Units and Institutes, 15 recipients per year will become MRC employees and earn a salary in the region of £17,000 plus benefits. The pilot scheme is the first stage in an ongoing review of MRC postgraduate training policy.
According to Dr Margaret Bryant, Research Career Awards manager at the MRC, pressure for the Council to do something radical to attract the best graduates into medical research careers comes from within. MRC supervisors have expressed concern that factors such as the impact of debts built up through student loans are kicking in and luring scientists away from further study. Professor Chris Higgins, director of the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre (CSC) in London and one of those supervisors, agrees that money is a major stumbling block. "Particularly in London," he says, the current stipend is "barely survivable."
The new fellowship will be taxable, of course, because it is a salary and not a stipend. But even after the government takes its bite, predoctoral fellows will still be better off than their counterparts on MRC studentships. The studentships start at £7450 per year, or £9900 with London weighting. "The MRC is really valuing the top people for these prestigious awards," says Higgins.
So why not simply offer a higher stipend? It all goes back to the "underlying philosophy" of the new scheme, according to Bryant, who points out that as employees the fellows will have better benefits, such as maternity entitlements and a pension scheme, and generally a "more secure social footing." It's "part of moving towards trying to develop a career structure for scientists," says Higgins, who believes the programme will show that "doing a PhD is part of a real scientific career," not just the low status preamble to working in research.
In Higgins's view the scheme also assists "the push towards 4-year PhDs in certain areas of biological science," because the fellowships will be awarded for either 3 or 4 years depending on the PhD programme available at the MRC establishment where the post is held. At the CSC, he explains, they are "looking to institute 4-year PhDs generally," a move he welcomes as it allows more time for both basic research and transferable skills training.
With just 15 places a year available, it seems unlikely that the programme will make a huge impact on the PhD recruitment crisis. However, Bryant explains that, as a scheme planned to run for 3 years in the first instance, its effect will be assessed fairly soon with the possibility of expansion if it is successful. "When we evaluate it, there will be a fair degree of focus on students' attitude," she explains, with the Council examining just how attractive the salaried package is, compared with the more traditional stipend.
And such small numbers mean that the MRC will be focussing on an elite. "The limited numbers of Fellowships available will be reserved for candidates of exceptional ability who demonstrate a commitment to pursing a career in biomedical research and show potential as future research leaders," they say. Higgins admits that identifying tomorrow's research leaders at the end of their undergraduate degree is tricky. "No spotting mechanism is perfect," he agrees, "but you can pick the really bright kids, there's no doubt about that," he asserts. And he expects the scheme to have benefits for all students, not just those lucky enough to land fellowships. If stipends start going up in one way it will eventually pull all the others up too, Higgins reckons, and he is optimistic that "this will help us improve conditions for many of the students."
Unlike studentships, which are available only to students from the UK, fellowships "will be open to any nationality," says Bryant. MRC has big plans for the scheme. "Ultimately we would like the fellowship to be internationally recognised," she says, so that if people do move abroad to further their careers the prestige will follow them.