Y2K: 12 Months in UK Science

What were you doing this time last year? Planning your mega-millennium bash? Stocking up on tinned food in case the world's supply systems went into meltdown on the stroke of midnight on 31 December? Or looking forward with anticipation to your visit to Greenwich and the Dome? Me, I was taking up my new post as UK editor at Next Wave. If I can give you one piece of career advice it's 'try to avoid starting a new job just before Christmas.' Especially if starting that new job involves moving house as well!

I survived, but there were some people for whom not everything went according to plan this year. There were a few engineers with eggy faces when the openings of first the London Eye and then Norman Foster's sexy Millennium Bridge were delayed because of safety concerns. But it looks as though the Dome could be redeemed--reinvented as one big hi-tech zone. Current front-runner to purchase the government's big embarrassment is Legacy plc who plan to turn it into a hi-tech business park. They're forecasting the creation of 14,000 new jobs in 3 years, so the structure could actually be busy at last, and busy with scientists at that.

With an election looming early next year, the government started spending and there was some good news for science and scientists. Along with the Wellcome Trust, the Treasury found £1 billion to update the UK's mouldering laboratories. Completion of the first draft of the human genome was announced in June, so it's no surprise that all things genetic continue to be flavour of the month with science funders. An additional £110 million will go to genomics over the next 3 years, as announced in the recent Research Council budget allocations. Other areas attracting dedicated funding are e-science, otherwise known as all things informatic (including bioinformatics to exploit the aforementioned genome), the next-generation Internet, which gets £98 million, and basic technology (£44 million), which covers such trendy areas as nanotechnology, bioengineering, and quantum computing.

So much for splashing the research cash around. What about paying the people who do the research a decent salary? I sometimes think scientists are their own worst enemies. The trouble is that, for so many, scientific research is a real vocation. They're prepared to put up with insecurity and poor wages because the trade-off is academic freedom. And their employers, the universities, have exploited this for years. But now even the most dedicated of researchers are beginning to abandon the bench. Often reluctantly. But when you have a family to support, the size of your pay cheque and knowing that you're going to have a job in 12 months time, and where it will be, are very important. Well, it seems that this year the policy-makers finally started to realise that there's a problem. An increase in PhD stipends announced at the same time as the £1 billion infrastructure fund is designed to reverse the decline in the number of students applying for postgrad studentships, and there was new money for topping up the salaries of an elite handful of academic scientists. Sadly there wasn't much in the way of good news for postdocs.

The Research Careers Initiative (RCI), the body charged with ensuring that universities abide by the Concordat and generally do right by their contract researchers, published its second biennial report in May. It found improvement in areas such as the number of postdocs being given regular appraisals, but in his introduction RCI Chairman Professor Sir Gareth Roberts said, "it is clear that the scale of change needs to be increased, and its pace accelerated." The unacceptable career insecurity felt by postdoctoral researchers is moving up the policy agenda, getting mentions in both this year's science White Paper and the Higher Education Funding Council for England's (HEFCE's) fundamental Review of Research. The biggest problem, it seems, is getting supervisors to take note of the Concordat. Proposals such as those put forward by HEFCE to link a portion of research funding to proper staff career development might just give principal investigators the incentive to try. Let's hope so!

Well, they say it's a sign of advancing age when time starts zipping by. My first 12 months with Next Wave have fairly flown and the year 2000 has definitely been a good one for me. It's been great to meet some Next Wave readers when I've been out and about visiting universities and I hope to meet many more of you next year. But please don't wait for me to come to you. If you have comments about Next Wave, or suggestions for articles that you'd like to see here, please do get in touch--I'd love to hear from you in 2001.

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