Research Posts: Buying Time for Young Scientists

Article excerpt

Some of the UK's brightest young scientists have been persuaded not to join the exodus to academic posts abroad by a personal research fellowship scheme launched 10 years ago by the Royal Society in response to higher education cuts.

The society's University Research Fellowship programme is intended to provide security and freedom to outstanding scientists between the ages of 26 and 33 involved in postdoctoral research - a stage in the UK's academic career structure that is causing increasing concern among vice-chancellors, scientists and ministers.

The prospects for postdoctoral researchers in the UK have deteriorated since the late Seventies, due to a dramatic rise in the number of academic staff on short-term contracts and a decline in the number of permanent posts. By 1991, short-term researchers accounted for 44 per cent of academic staff in science and engineering, compared with 22 per cent in 1977.

Where formerly a postdoctoral researcher would typically land a lecturing job after one or two short-term research posts, today he or she may still be without a permanent job after four or five short- term contracts. Sir Brian Follett, vice- chancellor of Warwick University and until recently head of research appointments at the Royal Society, says: "No matter how good you are, you still only stand a one in three chance of getting your contract renewed. That is very oppressive."

Teaching loads, worries about where the next contract is coming from and obligations to senior colleagues are constraining young scientists from concentrating on research and developing as individuals, Sir Brian says.

"Jim Watson was 25 at the time he found the double helix, and the 22 scientists who made the key discoveries that underlie molecular biology had an average age of 34 {when they made their discoveries}. That suggests that you need schemes to allow the very brightest young scientists to run free."

The fellowship scheme bridges the postdoctoral abyss by making medium-term personal awards to individual scientists backed up by generous research expenses, close attention to researchers' progress, pastoral care and careers advice. Researchers choose which UK university to conduct their work in and can carry the award between universities. Fellows are encouraged to get their departments to guarantee them permanent lecturing posts on completion.

The awards, which provide a salary based on the lecturer scale plus research expenses of up to pounds 9,000 per year, are initially for five years but renewable for three and then a further two years. …