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Technology: Where are the new scientists? - What if they gave a university and nobody came? Many predictions suggest that few young people will want to work as scientists in the 1990s

Technology: Where are the new scientists? - What if they gave a university and nobody came? Many predictions suggest that few young people will want to work as scientists in the 1990s

作者:鞠邡偎  时间:2019-02-26 11:03:00  人气:

By JON TURNEY and STEVE DONNELLY IN THE 1980s, saving British science was a question of money. The main problem for universities and research councils was funding new projects. But in the 1990s all the signs point to a new problem dominating the science policy agenda – getting enough people into laboratories to spend even the money that is available. A combination of factors, some common to other nations, some peculiar to Britain, suggests that this country may face a painful crisis in scientific recruitment in the near future. ‘The next five years will be critical’, according to Sir David Phillips, chairman of the Advisory Board for the Research Councils. The outlines of the potential crisis can be seen in demographic and employment trends. The first is the well-known dip in the number of 16- to 18-year-olds in our population, which began in 1984 and steepens after this year, and does not bottom out until 1996 (see Figure 1). The effect is that for every 10 students who left school in 1985, there will be only seven in 1995. Some years after this, universities and colleges face a wave of academic retirements, as many of the present lecturers and professors reach the end of their careers toward the end of the 1990s. In addition, academic research laboratories face stronger competition for their share of the cream of new recruits from industrial sectors which need more and more technically qualified staff, and from the City. Keener competition makes the gap between the few thousand pounds a year a PhD student has to live on and the starting salary of, say, a newly qualified accountant on perhaps Pounds sterling 12 000 wider than ever. In 1988, the proportion of new chemistry graduates choosing jobs in finance rose to 24.3 per cent, compared with 23.6 per cent in 1987, while the proportion of physics graduates going into finance rose from 15.5. to 17.9 per cent. The demographic profile is similar in the US and France, and even worse in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands (see Figure 2). The academic retirement bulge is also a common problem, as most developed countries expanded their colleges rapidly in the 1960s. In the US alone, the National Science Foundation predicts a shortfall of 675 000 scientists and engineers by 2006, so many more English-speaking researchers in other countries are likely to succumb to the lure of the dollar. Alternatively, they may decide to take advantage of the increased mobility the open European market will offer graduates after 1992 and depart for the continent. So how many people are needed to sustain the British research effort? The best recent review of what Whitehall calls the ‘science base’ is a study by Richard Pearson of the Institute of Manpower Studies, based at the University of Sussex, for the Advisory Board for the Research Councils. He found the statistics in a pretty poor state, but the main findings are clear. There were just under 50 000 researchers in research council laboratories, universities and polytechnics in the late 1980s. Around 28 000 were permanent teachers in higher education. Another 13 500 were working in universities or polytechnics on short-term contracts (of which more later). The rest, a little under 7500, were permanent or short-term employees of the five research councils, a total which has declined steeply in recent years because of cutbacks in the largely institute-based Agricultural and Food and Natural Environment Research Councils. These 50 000, not counting technicians and other support staff, are the science base’s share of the million or so people in the British labour force with degree-level qualifications in science, technology, engineering or social science. This means that the proportion of graduates needed to maintain the population of researchers in academic laboratories is pretty small. To this extent, the future supply problem is part of the more general problem of providing the skills a nation dependent on technology needs in the last decade of the century. But the position of the science base is special, for a number of reasons. Those recruiting people for academic research careers want to at least maintain their proportion of the brightest and best. ‘I’m not saying the science base must have them all,’ says Phillips of the ABRC. ‘but it needs a fair share.’ And there are forecasts that the share will need to increase just when competition is getting stiffer because the recruitment of university and polytechnic staff, after the rapid expansion of the 1960s, has fallen, leaving a bulge of middle-aged people in the posts. More than 70 per cent of academics in Britain are due to retire during the next 20 years. Richard Pearson estimates that staff recruitment to universities could rise by as much as 50 per cent between 1995 and the year 2000. This would mean as many as 400 new academic scientists and another 200 engineers and technologists would be needed each year. Again, the numbers are small in relation to total demand – quite a few companies recruit on this scale. But the science base will have to fight hard to attract the quality of researchers it has been able to take for granted over the past 20 years. More general estimates suggest that demand for graduates in all sectors of employment could rise by as much as a quarter, with the likely shortfall in supply boosting salaries and career prospects outside the public sector. Denis Noble, professor of physiology at the University of Oxford and founder of the organisation Save British Science, estimates that a high-flying graduate already loses more than Pounds sterling 100 000 by the age of 30 if he or she chooses scientific research instead of a career in industry or commerce. This is ‘exploitation of first-class talent on a scale which should shame a rich society,’ says Noble. Small wonder that Pearson’s report to the ABRC concluded: ‘Even though science base employers will be seeking a relatively small share of available graduates and postgraduates, they are unlikely to be able to attract sufficient high quality recruits to fill all the available vacancies if their salaries, employment conditions and career prospects remain as uncompetitive as at present.’ This conclusion can only be tentative because of the poor statistics, and because of the inevitable uncertainties surrounding forecasters’ assumptions about supply and demand. But there are plenty of warning signs already appearing in some areas of science and technology to reinforce the worrying statistics. Shortages of people with skills in information technology – an area where industry increasingly competes directly with academia – have been widely discussed over the past five years, for example, and have drawn calls for action from parliamentary select committees and the Confederation of British Industry. A little over a year ago, a report from the CBI’s Information Technology Skills Agency said that demand for professional IT staff will exceed supply for the foreseeable future. And it suggested that things would get worse in the 1990s because of the falling numbers of young people and an ‘antipathy toward technology-based careers’. Demand for graduate physicists is also buoyant. A survey of 500 industrial companies by the Institute of Physics in 1988 found it alone expected to employ all physicists projected to leave higher education with a first degree during the following five years, and would like to find more post graduates than universities and polytechnics are set to supply. Skill shortages are also showing up in other specialist sectors. There is widespread anxiety in the biotechnology world about present and future recruitment problems. The UK Interest Group in Biotechnology Education, an umbrella for all the leading learned societies and industrial organisations in the field, warned last year that existing shortages will become more general. They already face a decline in the proportion of new first degree and PhD graduates continuing scientific work, in academia or industry, and universities are finding it hard to attract suitable candidates for short-term research posts. Last summer, more than 1000 academics and industrialists signed a letter drafted by professors at Dundee, York and Warwick Universities saying that: ‘However able the top scientists and group leaders in this country may be, biological research and its industrial exploitation will stagnate in a few years if the manpower crisis is not addressed immediately.’ The latest annual employment survey from the Biochemical Society underlines the point, showing a decline already apparent in the number of biochemists emerging from British universities. Another specialised area, chemical engineering, produced what may be a taste of things to come in many technical disciplines in a report to the Science and Engineering Research Council in the Spring of 1986. Even then, the implications of demographic change, ageing faculty and high industrial salaries was clear to some. A working party told the SERC that in chemical engineering, and probably in the rest of engineering and technology, academic teaching and research would ‘collapse’ in the next 10 to 15 years unless salaries could be raised nearer industrial levels. In fact, the gap has widened since then. According to the Association of University Teachers, lecturers at the top of their grade have had salary rises of 70 per cent since 1981 (not discounting for inflation), while salaries in general have gone up by 88 per cent. A plague of short-term contracts One trend of the past 10 years seems to belie all the reports of skill shortages and forecasts of recruitment difficulties. This is the rapid increase in the number of publicly-funded researchers on short-term contracts. The total has doubled in a decade, and now stands at more than 13 000. These are the people who do the bulk of the work on most research council-funded projects in universities, for example. Their increase is partly a response to the near freeze on university recruitment. Taking on more contract researchers means increasingly hard-pressed permanent staff can keep their science moving. The contract boom also offers openings for would-be academic scientists who have little hope of a longer-term appointment. But, increasingly, the existence of this group is seen not as a good sign, but as part of the problem. They lead an insecure life, often spending the third year of a contract looking for the next job just when they can contribute most to the project they are already working on. And the message they convey to undergraduates is that research offers poor rewards for an indeterminate period. The pressures on these academic marginals, dubbed ‘unfaculty’ in the US, mean that many will have left the scene when university jobs start to fall vacant in larger numbers 10 years hence. The AUT already estimates that nearly 20 per cent of young full-time university staff abandon their academic jobs before they reach 30. This reduces the chances of breaking the prospective cycle of glut, followed by famine, which will repeat every 35 years or so now the pattern has been set by the boom of 1960s. Most of the features of the British scene which appear to presage future problems are reproduced in other leading European countries and the US. Growing demand for researchers, and technically trained people more generally, a projected fall in numbers of school-leavers, and universities suffering from middle-age spread are common to most of the member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. France, for example, expects to lose 70 per cent of science staff in universities through retirement between 2000 and 2015. Canada will be looking for 10 000 university professors, a third of its present total, by 1995. In the US, a report by William Bowen, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, estimates that by the year 2000 there will be only eight applicants for every 10 academic job vacancies in the US. All this increases the concern in Britain, where the brain drain has worried politicians for years. The main focus for this anxiety is the US, where the demographic dip is accompanied by a changing composition of the population. Here, the proportion of women, blacks and Spanish-speaking people in the workforce is rising, and all of these groups are seriously underrepresented in science and technology. American educationalists recognise that they need to increase the recruitment of women and minorities into science just to stand still, let alone meet increased demand from employers. The US is also expected to fill some of the posts through recruitment from overseas, offering academic salaries that are set by the market rather than the state. Encouraging immigration is only one of the strategies possible to get round the recruitment famine which threatens to overtake laboratories. A series of weighty reports from the US’s Office of Technology Assessment, for example, have looked at a whole range of ways of keeping up the supply of scientists and technologists. These strategies divide into two obvious classes: recruitment, encouraging more schoolchildren to study science at university; and retention, the art of persuading more of the students to pursue research careers after they graduate. The standard metaphor is the pipeline, although it is an amazingly leaky pipe. If you consider the many stages from primary school to PhD, there are many points at which educationalists and policy makers can intervene to make sure that a drop in total numbers need not lead to a fall in doctoral-level qualifications in any particular subject. The optimistic view of the pipeline in Britain is that the untended flow will not reduce to the trickle some foresee. For one thing, the demographic dip is much less marked among the social classes who are most likely to send their children to university. For another, because our overall participation in higher education is lower than other, comparable countries (as are the percentages of scientists and engineers in the working population – see tables), the government has declared that the proportion of 18- and 19-year-olds moving into higher education must rise. The latest target is 23 per cent in the year 2000, compared with 15 per cent in 1989. However, university and polytechnic heads are already complaining that the state is refusing to increase budgets in line with student numbers, and that this is a threat to quality. More students, but fewer scientists There are several other reasons for doubting that better participation rates will save the day for science. One is that the well-recognised shortage of qualified teachers makes it unlikely that schools can cope with turning out more potential science undergraduates. The overall figures show ample scope for change, with fewer than one in ten of the school-leavers qualified to do so applying to study chemistry at university, for example. And while Kenneth Baker, the former education secretary, launched schemes to tackle what he called the ’emergency’ in science teaching, notably bursaries to tempt more physicists, chemists and mathematicians into teacher training, the effects are slow. In addition, the shift to a more market-driven higher education system could well put expensive science courses at a disadvantage. Institutions may be more inclined to recruit extra students onto cheaper, non-laboratory-based courses like accountancy. The advent of full-cost fees may also increase reluctance to sign up for a science degree. There may be more room for optimism about strategies geared to improving retention. It would not require vast sums to improve the career structure for the pool of contract researchers, for example. It would be tricky to devise ways of making the transition to a system that admits fewer people at the postgraduate stage but offers more of the good ones a real prospect of long-term employment without depressing morale among the existing pool still further. But the price of not trying is prolonging the present habit of letting many people have a go at research without providing more than a few with proper jobs. This may be good for training scientists who then move on, but does nothing for morale among those who want a longer career in research. One obstacle to serious discussion of such ideas is that there is no obvious home for a policy for supply of researchers within government or among its web of advisory commit tees. Mainstream science policy bodies such as the ABRC have so far been reluctant to devote much time to training and recruitment questions, although the ABRC has expressed concern about these issues over the past three years. Most of the ABRC’s work, like that of the government it serves, is tied to the yearly public expenditure cycle. This reinforces the preoccupation with funding the next project, rather than looking 10 years ahead. The board’s action on the recruitment front so far has been fairly small scale. Its most important initiative has been support for the Royal Society’s University Research Fellowships Scheme, designed to give outstanding young researchers five years employment free of teaching commitments. But these are for the lucky few. In addition, this year the board persuaded the government to agree to a modest increase in the stipend for postgraduate students, to the princely sum of Pounds sterling 3600 a year. The ABRC’s warnings about the supply of researchers are now regular, even if it has not yet found a strategy to tackle the broad problem. ‘I’m still concerned about the problem,’ says Phillips, indicating that the topic is one the board will have to come back to. ‘It’s very hard to get a grip on it.’ The other main committee that should have a grip on it is the Advisory Council on Science and Technology, reporting to the prime minister. But ACOST has not even issued warnings to back the ABRC, although it does maintain a subcommittee on research manpower behind the Cabinet Office discretion that cloaks its discussions. Among departments of state, the Department of Education and Science has a long-standing aversion to anything that smacks of manpower planning, now reinforced by the present government’s free-market convictions. Robert Jackson, the junior minister for higher education and research, spoke on the supply of trained scientists and technologists at the 1989 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Sheffield. His main message was that, while the government shared some of the concerns expressed by other speakers, they must recognise that the demographic problems were not of the government’s making, and the solution was not in its hands. One of Baker’s last actions as Secretary of State for Education and Science was a major speech in London outlining all the DES ideas on science policy. The printed version of the speech, distributed as a surrogate White Paper, appended a newly revamped list of DES ‘policy objectives for funding of civil science’. Although these objectives take in manpower as a main heading, Baker’s speech said nothing about the subject. Nor has his successor, John MacGregor, been more forthcoming. Similar attitudes colour the approach of the Department of Trade and Industry, although the DTI does take a stronger interest in questions of industrial skill shortage. The department was the main instigator of schemes to increase the number of people with skills in information technology, mainly through conversion courses for graduates in other subjects run by the Science and Engineering Research Council. But it is not geared up to examine the overall position, waiting instead for problems to appear in particular areas. The ever stronger emphasis on the market makes it possible to doubt if even the expansion of training in information technology would find much favour with the government in 1990. But there must remain two strong doubts about this approach when it comes to populating the science base in the 1990s. The first is that the government largely controls the market for basic research jobs, although an increasing proportion of university researchers are funded from non-government sources. The second quandary is whether the market can respond to shortages in time to correct them when it takes a minimum of seven years to turn an A-level candidate at school into a budding postdoc. There are encouraging signs of change, in schools and colleges, and among employers. Many people are now concerned about the position of contract researchers, are aware of the potential for increasing recruitment of women into scientific and technical careers, and follow debates about changes in degree curricula for scientists as a way of maintaining the appeal of courses, and catering for new types of student. But until these or other measures show more likelihood of success, it will remain true that, as the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology bluntly put it last year: ‘All the United Kingdom’s plans for civil R & D are at risk from one factor, manpower shortages.’ NEW BLOOD: THE TRANSFUSION THAT FAILED IN 1983 the University Grants Committee began its ‘new blood’ lectureship scheme. The aim was to create permanent jobs for young academics in Britain’s universities. Seven years later the greying of university staff continues almost unabated, and many young lecturers are worried about the future of our universities. The year that the ‘new blood’ scheme began, the average age of permanent academic staff was over 42. The scheme provided 792 lectureships, mostly in science and engineering, while a similar scheme provided a further 146 posts in information technology. These posts were intended to be normal academic appointments, but restricted to those under 35 years of age. The scheme set out to let young lecturers gently into the rigours of academic life by reducing the teaching load for the first few years. The idea was that these ‘new bloods’ should concentrate on trying to set up new research projects and obtain funding for them. To make this possible, the UGC topped up each salary with a ‘new blood dowry’ of several thousand pounds whose purpose was not defined. In some institutions the dowry was passed on to the young lecturer to help with research costs, but in others the sum was simply absorbed into departmental or university overheads and the new blood lecturer received none of it. To find out how well the scheme worked, I sent out a short questionnaire to personnel departments, asking them to distribute them to new blood lecturers. About 160 of the 600 new bloods completed the questionnaires. The teaching loads of new bloods varied from none to almost twice the departmental average. Administrative loads were usually less onerous than average in the first two years but they varied widely between different universities and departments. Some of the new lecturers had no administrative duties, while others took on very heavy loads, including, in one case, the job of departmental examinations officer. Bryan Gallagher, of the physics department at the University of Nottingham, is one lecturer for whom the new blood scheme worked well. ‘In a sense, I had done my career prospects no good by staying on for two separate postdoctoral contracts. But the new blood scheme gave me a job where otherwise there would have been no permanent prospects.’ Gallagher was more fortunate than most: ‘The scheme has been a great success for me precisely because the UGC guidelines were honoured and all the new blood money, which was Pounds sterling 12 000 in the first year, came to me. As far as teaching loads were concerned, I had a very light load in the first two years. These concessions got my research off to a good start.’ Christine Boylan, with a post in the vision sciences department at Aston University, saw her lectureship as much less successful: ‘I feel that it would have been useful if I (and my department) had been made aware of the new blood dowry and the idea of reduced teaching loads. Teaching and administrative duties were evenly distributed within my department so that I had no reduction.’ She resigned last year. At Aston, new blood posts were treated as short-term positions and did not carry tenure, contrary to UCG guidelines. Says Boylan: ‘There was a distinct gap between the tenured staff and those (including me) without tenure. It was made very clear that however well you did there was no guarantee of continued employment.’ Overall, about two-thirds of those surveyed felt that the new blood scheme had helped them to set up and carry out research. But many were worried about their futures and that of the British university system. Low salaries were a common worry, but of even greater concern was the difficulty in recruiting talented research students and research assistants when salaries and prospects are extremely unattractive compared with other countries and other professions. Only 59 per cent of respondents said that they definitely wanted to stay within British academia; 28 per cent hoped to find either jobs overseas (mainly in the US) or in the private sector. Has the scheme halted the greying of our academic institutions? Recent figures from the AUT Research Office reveal that the new blood scheme has stabilised the fraction of the university population aged between 36 and 55. But the decline in the percentage of under-35s continues unabated while the number of over 55s rises. The average continues to rise at the rate of six months per year. The 1050 new appointments, linked to an equivalent number of early retirements planned for the academic years 1989-90 and 1990-91, will not be sufficient to reverse this trend. Jon Turney writes for the Times Higher Education Supplement. Dr Steve Donnelly is a new blood lecturer in the department of electronic and electrical engineering at the University of Salford. Further reading Scientific Research Manpower: A Review of Supply and Demand Trends, IMS report no 169, by Richard Pearson, Pounds sterling 15 from IMS, Mantell Building, University of Sussex,