Bench or Boardroom?

Five representatives of industry debated the future of young scientists at a meeting of the Royal Institution (RI) on 1 December. The panelists advised an audience of eager young scientists on why and how to make the transition from academia to private industry.

The debate, chaired by Susan Greenfield, director of the RI, was one of a series of public talks on "Scientists for the New Century," sponsored by The Times and the pharmaceutical company Novartis and scheduled to continue throughout 2000. If you would like to add your expertise to a future panel, you can apply to the RI to speak--and compete for a £1500 prize (see details below).

One young scientist asked the panel a question that represented the worries of many audience members: "I am in my late 20s; I have a science degree, a postgraduate qualification, and a couple of postdoc positions under my belt. I love science; however I am faced with an academic career with low salary and job insecurity. Why should I stay at the bench when the private sector and industry can offer me so much more?"

The panelists admitted that there is still some stigma attached to leaving academic research, but they urged young scientists to consider all the other opportunities that their training prepares them for.

"It's a fast-moving world today--if you have a five-year plan you are doing well!" said panelist Daniel Roach, chief executive officer of CENES Ltd., one of 1000 biotech start-up companies in the U.K. Roach opted out of an academic career and used his scientific training to move into industry-- where "you can still hang on to your science and make a lot of money," he said.

Panelist Richard Brook, CEO of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, advised postdocs to go where the action is, to work on exciting new lines of research--for a time. "Go if you have the confidence to do it, work with as many high-profile people as possible, and travel the world." But, he said, young scientists shouldn't spend too long in a postdoc position.

Young scientists should stop and evaluate their priorities when deciding how to steer their careers, said Corinne Saville, chief operating officer of Imutran Ltd. "Think about what is important to you personally. If it's salary, status, or job security then maybe science is not a long-term career prospect for you. However, if it's what science can give that drives you, then make science your choice," Saville said.

Candace Hassall, a member of the Wellcome Trust's Career Development Group, outlined her approach to giving career advice to junior scientists. "First, any information we give them is based on individual strengths and needs; we basically try to make it as specific as possible. Second, we make sure that they know that training as a scientist is a good thing and opens up a variety of opportunities. Finally, we encourage people to pursue international competitive research at the cutting edge. I believe that it is important to find out what is important to you personally and to pursue your dream with great vigor and tenacity."

Douglas MacArthur, founder and managing director of the Radio Advertising Bureau, left a science Ph.D. program to pursue a career in marketing. Although no longer involved in science, he values his training, which "provided an excellent grounding for an alternative career," he says. Businesses need to be taught, he says, that "scientists have skills that they can utilize."

The Royal Institution will continue the "Scientists for the New Century" debate series in 2000. Future lectures will feature some of the country's best young scientists. Nine will be selected on the basis of academic excellence and ability to communicate, and the top junior scientist will receive a cash prize of £1500. To apply, visit or call 0207 4092992. Applications are due by 7 January 2000.

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