Story of a brain haemorrhage

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Let me tell you the story of two young scientists: I shall call them Fred and Freda. Both were working in my laboratory as graduate students for three years, at the end of which period they would write up the results of their work in doctoral theses. Fred had an immaculate academic pedigree: he had held a much coveted scholarship from Trinity College Dublin, and had gained a first. During his three years in Oxford, he worked hard and well, picking up the icing-on-the-cake award of a senior scholarship at Christ Church. So far so good.

Freda too held great promise as a research scientist. Again, she had gained a first, and showed enormous intelligence during the work for her doctorate. She too won a senior scholarship at an Oxford college, and a departmental prize.

Why tell so much about these two erstwhile junior colleagues of mine? The point is that both Fred and Freda were, indeed still are, stellar graduates with enormous potential for undertaking exciting research into basic problems about the brain. But this year both are giving up. What has gone wrong?

Freda was not initially enthusiastic at the prospect of quitting university research. She prudently tried to keep options open for as long as possible by exploring openings in both the public and private sectors. She was swayed by industry: she felt she would be able to develop not just scientific prowess, but also managerial and presentational skills. But the biggest incentive was security, as she looked at academic colleagues anxiously working out two- or three-year contracts whilst arriving in the foothills of middle age. In return she had to concede her claim to the academic freedom to explore the particular problems that interested her. But ultimately, the price was just too high.

Fred, in contrast, was prepared to put up with the lack of any kind of chartered future. He accepted the long, anti-social hours and the nugatory salary that is the lot of the lone post-doc scientist embarking on the trail of a track record sufficiently impressive to compete for that public sector holy grail, the lectureship. Fred enjoyed the intellectual challenge of research and placed it as his highest priority. But once he was established in his post-doctoral position, the thrill of basic science that had driven him evaporated. Some labs, like some schools or some offices, have a buzz; others do not. Once science ceases to give you highs, life in a lab is like a British seaside holiday in November rather than August. Fred did not take the gamble that his personal scientific climate might change. But would he have tried out another lab if a clearer career structure had been in place? He is now applying for courses in management.

The defections of Fred and Freda are not atypical. Only last year the House of Lords published a report in which enormous concern was expressed over post-doctoral research scientists. It is not good enough to shrug off the problem with a worldly argument that research is a pyramid, albeit with much sharper sides than most other professions. The difference is that in other careers, when you stop progressing up the pyramid, you stay put. In basic science, if you are no longer moving upwards, sooner or later you slither down and out of the lab altogether.

Those who do not get lectureships may not do so because there is a strong internal candidate, or alternatively there's a policy against internal candidates, or because research interests do not coalesce with those of the receiving department, or because there would be an overlap in what an individual could teach, or because someone younger (hence cheaper) applies, or simply because fewer lectureships are now available. Fred and Freda never even got to this stage. I cannot blame them for going off to find another pyramid with gentler slopes. I did remind them that the thrill of an original finding can seriously rival most other joys in life. But I couldn't, in all conscience, actively urge them to take on so precarious a future.

! Susan Greenfield is a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, Gresham Professor of Physic, London, and author of 'Journey to the Centers of the Mind' (Freeman pounds 17.95)