Scientists: Overworked and Undervalued?

Catherine Watts 13 October 2007

A group of government advisers has criticised the way that British universities treat young postgraduate researchers in the sciences, saying that the UK could face a shortage of scientists if serious steps are not taken now.

According to a number of university and industry researchers surveyed by the Council for Science and Technology, the work performed by research students often goes unappreciated by their supervisors, with postgrads and post-doctoral students having little opportunity to take on more responsibility and inependent work.

Wendy Hall, the report’s co-author, told the Guardian that it was essential to provide researchers with a “sense of worth” to prevent the UK from suffering a ‘brain drain’ in the sciences.

“We need to move the current state of affairs to a system where postdoc students have a sense of worth, and where they can become independent researchers earlier on in their careers,” she commented.

The Council recommends that more research fellowships should be set up to provide researchers with greater independence and responsibility at an earlier stage. It also suggests that a framework should be established to ease researchers into jobs in other sectors following graduation.

Ms Hall added: “We can’t tell universities what do to, but some Russell group universities, which have strong research incomes, could be the first to try it.”

The report also found that a lack of support and career advice for research students means that many recent graduates are unwilling to commit to further study, believing that a postgraduate degree could do little to improve their future job prospects.

John Denham, government Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills reacted to the report by highlighting the need to make university research better suited to the needs of graduates. “To keep Britain at the forefront of the global economy we must make a career in research an attractive option for the brightest graduates and postgraduates,” Mr Denham said.

But some Cambridge postgrads were willing to defend the system. Ed Roberts, a first year PhD student in Pathology at King’s College, told The Cambridge Student, “In all the labs that I’ve been in, I’ve seen people being enocuraged to pursue

independent work.”

Catherine Watts