Kingdom Come

"I have a career of great fortune," says David King. That career took an exciting twist last Autumn when King, a professor of physical chemistry at the University of Cambridge, accepted the job of Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government. Already influential in his field of surface science, King overnight became one of the most influential scientists in the UK. His post gives him "access to the right politicians ... including the Prime Minister," he told Next Wave when we met at the Office of Science and Technology earlier this month. So his views look set to have important consequences for early career scientists during his 5-year term of office.

The omens are good. King is described by former University of East Anglia colleague, biologist-turned-MP Ian Gibson as "quite radical." According to Director of Save British Science Peter Cotgreave, "in the past he's said all the right things," speaking about the "dangerously low level" of support for the science base at an SBS press conference in 1998. But what does the man himself have to say? Next Wave sat down with him on 6 March to find out.

On the vexed issue of contract research staff (CRS) he admits that there is "no simple solution." The root of the problem is the very "success of British universities coming to grips with wealth creation," he suggests, which has increased the number of sources of funding open to them. While welcoming the movement toward a more direct link between government investment and wealth creation, he regrets that "it's almost as if [CRS are] a casualty of that process," because of the resultant expansion in their numbers. "The problem lies with the universities," he says, which could move toward a system of funding postdocs through a pool. Although this is beginning to happen, "universities are very nervous to do that" in case the sources of funding begin to dry up. And the other spanner in the works is specialisation, King tells Next Wave, "a contract comes in one week to run the nuclear physics facility and next week to run the biological facility."

One way postdocs themselves see to improve their lot would be the possibility to apply for research grants in their own right, a move which all the Research Councils with the exception of the Economic and Social Research Council are resisting. "In principle I can't see a problem" with the proposal, King says, but puts the ball firmly in the universities' court once again. It's a space issue, he says. If a contract researcher succeeds in landing their own grant, making them independent from the PI, "where do they go, where's the laboratory space? It would require that heads of departments would have to have control," he suggests.

As head of the chemistry department at Cambridge himself until recently, he was distressed by the number of graduates turning their backs of science careers for well-paid City jobs. "I think it is very important that the most creative people coming out of our educational system ... are able to contribute back to our society through jobs which attract them," he asserts, and a key factor in the equation is salaries. He suggests that professorial salaries need to be doubled and "would like to see significantly higher salaries" for young scientists starting their careers.

King sees one of his biggest challenges as restoring public confidence in science. This is critical, he believes, because the future of the UK's biotechnology industry depends on it. "We're very strong in the biosciences," he says, but asks, "can we translate that into a big industry?" And he acknowledges that strength in biotech and high-tech industries depends too on attracting the right people to scientific employment. "I really want to see that we exploit those opportunities," he says, "and the only way to do that is by brain gain." He admits that the UK has undoubtedly leaked some of its top minds in recent years, but is optimistic that the country is also attracting outstanding scientists from continental Europe: "There is a really big plus in that we are becoming more international," he suggests.

It's over 40 years since King embarked on his scientific career as an undergraduate in South Africa, and university research has been transformed in that time. Would he do it all again? "I wouldn't change one bit of it," he says. "I've been very privileged to have been in the laboratory at a time when there's been such a transformation in what we've been able to do," he explains. Thanks to massive improvements in computing power and instrumentation, King believes that scientists are now able to tackle "problems that 10 years ago we wouldn't have dreamed we were capable of." Of academic life he says, "I think there are some of us who would never hesitate in that career line. ... It is just a privilege to be allowed to earn your living by doing what you enjoy doing every day."

So what is King's advice to early-career scientists--Next Wave readers? For those contemplating doing a PhD he says, "find out who is going to be the best mentor for you," depending on your research interests and "aim high." Many Nobel Prize-winners had supervisors who were Nobel Prize-winners themselves, he points out. And on completing your doctorate, "move on." Having learnt all you can from your first mentor, it's time to find another who can teach you more. "I see the scientific process as an apprenticeship--you learn from a master or a mistress," he asserts. Embarking on his own apprenticeship in the ways of Whitehall, King is proof that you can never stand still if you want to embrace all the challenges your career presents.

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