Keys to Independence in the UK and Ireland

Funding bodies are coming to the aid of young scientists with a variety of programs aimed at helping them become independent investigators

Scientific independence--the freedom to pursue one's own research ideas--is the dream of many ambitious young scientists. But postdocs everywhere find it difficult to escape their indenture and go their own way, and many plow away on their adviser's projects long after they have paid their dues.

The U.K. government has since provided funding to make career paths more stable for postdocs, launching a fellowship program to complement existing ones aimed at scientists making the transition to independent investigators. In Ireland, too--aided by the late '90s economic boom--the government has started to increase the opportunities for scientific independence available to the country's early career scientists. In this special feature, Science's Next Wave, the online publication about science careers (, examines these efforts, provides details of some of the top programs, and reports on the experiences of young scientists in the United Kingdom and Ireland who are benefiting from them ( see story).

The power of money

Most agree that the key to unlocking the postdoc shackles is money--independent money. But in the United Kingdom, a standard rule is that postdocs can only apply for major research grants as co-investigators, which keeps them in thrall to a more experienced scientist. In Ireland, postdocs have been eligible to apply for research grants, but until recently funding bodies did not have enough money for postdocs to have a reasonable chance at winning substantial funding.

Still, money has little value without space. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, all researchers applying for grants first have to identify an institution willing to offer them lab space and other essential research support. And that is why, according to Joanne Ross, university interface manager at the U.K.'s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), "the main route for a young researcher to become independent is to get an academic [faculty] position at a university." Such positions usually come with lab space and--especially relevant to U.K. postdocs-- "make young researchers eligible to apply for research grants," says Ross.

Unfortunately, junior faculty positions--termed "lectureships" in the United Kingdom and Ireland--are few and highly competitive. The Roberts Review reported that less than 20% of postdocs will ever get a permanent university post. As a result, the transition from postdoctoral serfdom to the scientific equivalent of land ownership--a faculty position with an independent lab--is very slow, often rocky, and rare.

Even those chosen few have a tough row to hoe. Most lectureships come with limited funds to set up labs, so the first thing new lecturers have to do--in between lecture preps and administrative duties--is to write enough research grant proposals that at least one or two will be funded. All this leaves little time for research, at precisely the time when scientists are called upon to make their marks as independent research scientists.

Just last year, the U.K. government introduced a new initiative--the Academic Fellowship Programme--aimed at smoothing the transition from postdoc to lecturer. With this scheme, the government is allocating funding for 1000 positions over the coming 5 years directly to universities so that they may recruit fellows based on their anticipated needs for lecturing staff. Fellows will be expected to take on teaching duties and project management responsibilities gradually as they spend most of their time developing their own independent research. The support is modest--£25,000 per fellow per year for 5 years--so the universities and funding bodies must supplement the fellows financially. The real payoff for academic fellows--and it's a big one--is the promise of a faculty position at the end of the fellowship, after a probationary period.

The U.K. Academic Fellowships are a new approach, but the basic idea--giving young researchers some cash of their own and a boost toward research independence--isn't new. Indeed, in the United Kingdom, the personal fellowship is a long-established, prestigious, more robust career trajectory for early career scientists aspiring to become independent researchers. These grants provide a big chunk of research money and immediate independence. The U.K. Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) David Phillips Fellowships, for example, pay the fellow's salary for 5 years and a one-off research support grant of up to £200,000. Some of these schemes are also open to junior lecturers, so that they may buy time away from lecturing and concentrate on putting their research career on track.

In Ireland, following a funding boost from the government, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI)--the country's major research funding agency--began to offer a funding scheme comparable to the United Kingdom's personal fellowship, the President of Ireland Young Researcher Awards (PIYRA). These are generous, paying up to €1.2 million to each researcher over 5 years.

The Irish funding boost also had repercussions on mainstream research grants. The tangible difference for young scientists now is that funding bodies have sufficient resources to give them their share of the money pot. In particular, the SFI Investigator Programme offers successful candidates between€100,000 and € 250,000 per year, with an overall success rate last year of 28%. Both PIYRA and Investigator grants focus on Ireland's key areas of strategic interest--biotechnology and information and communication technologies--although these grants are available for work in any area that "underpins" these fields.

These fellowships and other independent- funding schemes intended to ease the transition to scientific independence are still rare in the United Kingdom and Ireland, as they are elsewhere. Yet, for the few young scientists who manage to get one, they can make becoming independent much less harrowing. And because they tend to go to the best and the brightest, the scientific significance of these awards is probably much greater than their numbers indicate. But perhaps most encouraging is that these programs are evidence that U.K. and Irish funding bodies are aware of the obstacles early career scientists face as they approach scientific independence and are taking some initiative to help them solve these problems. As SFI Director General Bill Harris puts it, "Today's young researchers will be leading the research teams of tomorrow; we want them to have good career paths."

Anne Forde is an editor based in Cambridge, U.K., and Elisabeth Pain is a contributing editor based in Barcelona, Spain, for Science's Next Wave.

Also in this special International Careers Report ...

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