Our Broken Science Career Path: Something Needs to Change

The career path for scientists and engineers in UK academia is broken.  But we knew that already. The recent House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee’s report on women in STEMM careers (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) is just the latest to find issue with the structure of research careers.

Progressing from a Ph.D. to lectureship usually involves a series of short-term contracts in post-doctoral and fellowship positions. This unstable period in people’s careers and personal lives discourages many from continuing in academia and disproportionally affects women. Despite decades of awareness of these problems and their consequences, women still remain under-represented at the top levels of the academic science profession. As Andrew Miller, chair of the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee, summarised:

“The system of short term contracts is hugely off-putting for many women scientists… that is why we have called for Government, universities and research councils to review the academic careers structure, so that talented women, and men, can have more stable career pathways.”

These issues have a personal resonance with me as I’ve just gone through the short-term contract experience, and have now stepped off the academic career path. Although unlike many, I remained in the same location since I finished my PhD, I’m now in my fourth position in 4 years and have worked on three-month, six-month and year-long contracts. I can personally attest to how short-term contracts affect employment rights, put strain on relationships, create anxiety over job security and make it difficult to plan for other things, such as house-buying.

This experience of early career research is hardly a new phenomenon, nor a British one, and was highlighted in Baroness Greenfield’s report “SET Fair” in 2002. Little has changed since, and in the latest inquiry Dame Uta Frith admitted that “short-term contracts are probably inevitable in a very competitive situation.” This feeling of inevitability trickles down to the researchers themselves: most of my colleagues are frustrated by but resigned to the early career existence, sentiments that even pervaded last November’s national Research Staff Conference.

But is the situation really inevitable? It’s easy to say so, and it becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Personally, I don’t buy the argument that because something has always been the way it is means it can’t be changed in the future. The Commons report was criticised for being short on actual policy recommendations, but it did support greater job security for early career researchers. It was also critical about how information on employment rights, such as maternity leave for PhD students and research staff, are poorly communicated from funder, through employers to the researchers themselves.

In my view they could have gone a bit further. Below, I’ve summarised three possible ways the system could be changed for the better (although I’m always conscious of the law of unintended consequences).

-Embed researcher mobility into PhD programmes and research fellowships

Working in more than one institution, and particularly abroad, is highly desirable for anyone wanting to progress in academia. The positives are that travel exposes researchers to new science and new ways of thinking, leads to new collaborations and spreads ideas. At present, the onus is predominantly on the individual themselves, who needs to become mobile either after their undergraduate or postgraduate degree.  I know many who have done this, with success, but it puts stress on relationships and becomes even more onerous for those with families.

I would like to see the responsibility for creating a well-travelled workforce put onto the funders and employers themselves. More PhD studentships, research grants and Fellowships should provide options for researchers to work for periods abroad, at other institutions or in industry (much like “Year in Industry/Year Abroad” undergraduate degrees).

Colleagues of mine did study abroad during their PhDs, but only if funding was available or they won a highly competitive scholarship. There are EU research programmes, such as Marie Curie, which build in researcher mobility with students or fellows expected to work at more than one institution. In the UK, Centres of Doctoral Training and Engineering Doctorate programmes are starting to provide similar opportunities to travel or work in industry.  To me these types of “secondments” are preferable to the current system- researchers can opt for shorter periods away from home, and there is greater job security provided by the protection of their PhDs.

-No more contracts less than 12 months in length

Post-doctoral contracts are usually tied to the length of research grants, so most will last no more than three years (some up to five). The reality is that many contracts are considerably shorter- I’ve seen adverts for positions as short as four or five months and I myself have worked a six month post-doc position.  Not only do short contracts provide no job security, they prevent good science being done as they dissuade talented applicants and force researchers to be looking for the next job almost immediately.  RCUK say they want to increase the number of longer post-doctoral positions available- they could insist that they will not support short-term ones as well.

-Better career guidance on academic and non-academic careers

In a recent blog post, Athene Donald describes the naïveté of new PhD students when it comes to considering their careers. When I started a PhD, I was motivated by an interest in science and a like of University life; at that time, I didn’t want to move into industry or another career. I wasn’t really aware of the career progression into academia, nor did I care too much, and I know many of my friends and colleagues thought similar

Rather than wait until people are writing their Thesis, new PhD students, even late-stage undergraduates interested in research, need to receive mentoring and guidance about academic careers. Not only will this help manage expectations but it will also enable researchers to better plan their careers.

Also important is advice about careers outside academia. By the evidence of a careers’ event we ran at Nottingham last year, there is a huge appetite for information among researchers.  Career support for postgraduates and post-docs does exist at Universities, but is less developed than what’s on offer for undergraduates and needs to be improved.  Bringing employers into contact with researchers not only helps broaden their awareness of career options, but also breaks down preconceptions on both sides.

In their report “Career out of Control: A Crisis in the UK Science Profession”, Science is Vital exposed the scientific career structure in the UK as “not fit for purpose”, concluding that “if the situation is not improved, we risk seriously undermining our research base and, in turn, imperilling the economy.” Beyond simple economics, there is also an ethical imperative- a system which disproportionally (but not just) puts off women from remaining in academia is a system which simply should not exist. I appreciate that change to the academic career path may not be simple to implement, but I fear the biggest hurdle might be the conservative attitude of the academic community. Perhaps it needs greater leadership from above, in the form of new policies and directives, rather than just leaving it to busy academics.  Whichever way people decide to change the system, if they do at all, there is little doubt in my mind that it continues to discourage talented scientists and erode their love for research. If that’s not a motive for change, then I don’t know what is.

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Screwing the Planet

My second article on Medium’s Futures Exchange collection looks at how sustainable our sex lives are. An excerpt is below with the full article here.

But sex isn’t just about making babies; there’s also a fun side. The sexual revolution of the 1960s has given rise to a rapidly expanding sex industry, worth $15 billion globally, which aims to satiate all our carnal needs. From latex to lube, this industry supplies a wide and diverse range of products to help spice things up in the bedroom. Like all chemicals, how these products are manufactured, used and disposed of will have an effect on the environment. As a chemist myself, I’m not suggesting we start to worry about the planet mid-coitus — I certainly don’t (honest!) — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a growing awareness of some environmental issues associated with our modern sex lives.

Thanks to Frank Swain (@sciencepunk) for his help cleaning up my writing and publishing the article on his collection.

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Blogroll: Turf wars

I was invited to write for Nature Chemistry’s Blogroll column for their December issue. The column is meant as a brief summary of the current chemistry/science blogosphere and features in their printed and online issues, which hopefully creates access to a broader audience. Thanks to Stuart Cantrill and colleagues for the opportunity! Original (including link to PDF) can be found here (£££).

Molecular modellers scoop Nobel and a publishing ‘trash heap’ uncovered.

Nobel season has come and gone, with this year’s chemistry prize awarded to Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel. Once more, Paul Bracher at ChemBark must be thanked for collating the runners and riders on his blog (http://go.nature.com/qrY5o2). That the prize was awarded for computational chemistry delighted Ash Jogalekar at the Curious Wavefunction (http://go.nature.com/u4TEfB), who noted that it recognized both a whole field and the lifetime achievements of the three winners. Realizing that not everyone was happy with the decision, Jogalekar’s delight soon turned to frustration (http://go.nature.com/kytmTT) at those chemists who snipe at researchers in other fields of chemistry. As Ash put it, these ‘turf wars’ hardly help improve the public image of chemists.

Speaking of turf wars, a recent sting investigation reported in Science on open-access (OA) publishers caused a stir both in the blogosphere and the mainstream press (http://go.nature.com/mCNMVJ). John Bohannon, under the superb alias Ocorrafoo Cobange, sent a spoof paper describing the new (non-existent) anticancer properties of a new (equally non-existent) wonder drug to 304 OA journals. It was accepted in 157, occasionally without peer review, despite clear scientific and ethical shortcomings.

“An Open Access Trash Heap” cried Derek Lowe at In The Pipeline (http://go.nature.com/GMJ2ST), with his two barrels aimed directly at those journals who rip off authors for “whatever fees they can scam”. Open Access advocates, including PLOS founder Michael Eisen, were quick to defend OA publishing, suggesting similar failings would also occur in subscription-only journals. As Jon Tennant, guest-blogging on Matthew Shipman’s SciLogs page, pointed out, Bohannon’s sting uncovered deeper issues with peer review and editorial processes in general, regardless of publishers’ business models (http://go.nature.com/hXfji5).

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It’s the end of the year, or nearly, and time to start reflecting. It seems a common manifestation of such reflections is to draw up lists. From 50 Most Embarrassing Celebrity Moments! to funniest comedy catchphrases, TV and magazines end up awash with countdowns and collections in December. Even the Telegraph got into the spirit this week with a list of greatest female cartoon characters.

Scientists and policy makers have also been making lists recently. Three to be exact. The first, published in Nature but repeated on the Guardian website, outlined 20 tips to help politicians and policy makers understand science. Then Chris Tyler, Director of the UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, responded with 20 things scientists should know about policy making. Finally, Roland Jackson (Sciencewise), produced a trimmed-down list of only twelve points reminding both scientists and policy makers not to forget about the public(s) too.
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A few words on Nelson Mandela

I came home last night to hear the news that Nelson Mandela, former leader of the African National Congress and first black President of South Africa, had passed away at the age of 95.  I am far too young to remember any of the period of Mandela’s incarceration, although I do just about remember his release. Two memories of mine that do stand out vividly from the immediate post-Apartheid era are the seemingly endless queues to vote in the 1994 election and then a year later Mandela cheering like a schoolboy as Francois Pienaar held aloft the Webb Ellis trophy.

Mandela himself said “Let every man be respected as an individual and no man idolized,” but he is a man who is idolised by millions. He was not a perfect man- prone to stubbornness, anger and apparently distant and cold in his private life- failings he could be forgiven after so many years imprisoned.  Yet he was able to rise above, soar even, forgiving those who had oppressed him and in later years breaking with tradition in his criticism of other African leaders and campaigning for HIV/AIDS awareness.  He was truly a man who believed in freedom and equality for all.

Will there be another like Mandela? His death signals the end of that series of great freedom fighters and revolutionaries who dominated the 20th Century. Although we might not be able to replicate what Mandela achieved we can all learn a little from him, a little that can make our lives and the lives of those around us that little bit better.  

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EcoChem Diary

Day 0: Settting up

This week I’m at the EcoChem trade show and conference on green & sustainable chemistry, being held in Basel, Switzerland. The University of Nottingham are sending a team of us out there to showcase our research in this area, which is broader than you might first think.  Our team encompasses researchers from chemistry, engineering and the bio-, pharmaceutical and food sciences, covering technologies such as supercritical fluids, ionic liquids, biofuels, enzymatic catalysis, microwave heating and analytical chemistry.
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Science Policy- the fine line between advice and lobbying

I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop on policy run by the Royal Society of Chemistry and the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP).  I say fortunate as the workshop was booked out, with sufficient demand to encourage the RSC and CSaP to plan another in the New Year. Clearly, science policy is “in”.
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Should Universities Lead Innovation?

I have been commissioned by University World News to write a piece on the recent review by Sir Andrew Witty (Chief Exec of pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline and Chancellor of the University of Notitngham) on Encouraging a British Invention Revolution.  Witty’s review outlines how he sees the future of innovation in the UK and, critically, places universities at the forefront of wealth creation and economic growth.  I have included a short extract below of the full article which can be found here.

Witty’s report paints the UK as a country that hosts world-leading research expertise within its universities, but which often fails to translate that expertise into economic growth. He is critical of a system he sees as too focused on local growth, leading to duplicated initiatives and a muddled national approach.

Furthermore, he sees universities as being underutilised in developing economic strategies and describes how the opaque research landscape hinders engagement by small and medium-sized enterprises, or SMEs, charities, LEPs and overseas partners.

Not everything is bad – through a number of case studies, Witty highlights existing good practices and his recommendations outline how they can be turned into a national strategy for innovation and economic growth.

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Green Chemistry in the 21st Century

I have contributed to Frank Swain’s (@SciencePunk) Future Exchanges collection on Medium, as part of a collection of essays on the future of environmentalism in the 21st Century. I have included a selection from my post below; the full text can be found here.

“When we think of pharmaceuticals, we probably imagine rows of perfectly formed tablets zipping along production lines, or scientists working in immaculately clean laboratories. We are perhaps less aware of the tonnes of acids and bases, chlorinated solvents and heavy metals that are used to produce our medicines. For every kilogram of drug manufactured, up to a tonne of these chemicals end up as waste; waste that has to be destroyed, stored or disposed of by other means. The fear of litigation is also ever-present, making the industry increasingly wary of using any chemicals that might present a risk to human health. Many pharmaceutical chemists now realise that Green Chemistry not only makes environmental sense, but business sense and 20 years on the industry is seen as a success story.”


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A Carbon Neutral Chemistry Lab

At the moment, chemists at the University of Nottingham are a bit excited-building work on our new Centre for Sustainable Chemistry has begun! The building, due to be completed by 2015, is being funded through a £12m donation by pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline, matched by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). The aim is that the building should be carbon neutral through its construction and operation, while research and teaching programmes will focus on green and sustainable chemistry. Natural materials will be used in its construction and heating and energy will be provided by renewable sources such as solar panels and biofuels. The Centre will fit into the local district heating network on the University’s Innovation Park, allowing excess energy produced to be transferred to the offices nearby. This will provide enough carbon credits for the new building to pay back the carbon “used” in its construction.
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