Are our PhDs safe in the laboratory?

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The Independent Online
What will happen to science and technology in the UK if a lack of funding discourages a bright graduate from going

on to take a PhD? That is a question many academics are beginning to ask, reports

Simon Midgley.

There is a growing consensus in the research fraternity that grants for PhD students need to be increased if British universities are to remain at the cutting edge of scientific and technological advance.

Many academics fear that mounting student debt, the imposition of tuition fees and the lure of attractive starting salaries in industry and commerce are combining to reduce the number of first-rate graduates who are opting to go into research.

Postgraduate stipend levels vary according to which council makes the award, the award made, and whether it is from a university in London or in the provinces.

The awards range from pounds 5,501, for the first and second years of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) stipend outside London, to pounds 10,027 for a Medical Research Council third-year award in London.

Ken Pounds, chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, says: "I believe the case for increasing PhD stipends is unarguable. The whole science base will be weakened if we don't maintain a flow of the best people into research."

The BBSRC is concerned that today only a quarter of graduate students going into PhDs in biological sciences have first-class honours degrees, compared to around 45 per cent in the mid-Seventies.

It is equally worried that there is a feeling in the academic community that the number of marginal 2.i/2.ii candidates going on to do PhDs may be increasing.

Professor Sir Brian Follett, vice-chancellor of Warwick University, who serves on the BBSRC's council, says that there is a feeling that some of the best and the brightest may no longer be going on to do PhDs.

"A lot of bright young people go into a whole range of activities that they did not go into in the Seventies. As a result I think science is under real pressure. It does not have an attractive enough package of pay, coupled with reasonable chances of security, to attract the best.

"The greatest danger is to get the third division people becoming scientists, isn't it? he adds. "There's no point in doing science, frankly, unless you do it at the cutting edge.

"Certainly one would want one's academic staff in the mainline universities to be very bright people. Beware a society where the students are brighter than the staff."

Professor Richard Brook, chief executive officer of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, says: "There does seem to be anecdotal evidence that the number of students coming forward for PhDs this year is less than it has been. If you talk to people out in universities they say, `yes, we filled them, but we did not have as many people with which to fill them as we have had in the past.'"

Dr Sarah Ruth, training schemes policy officer at the National Environment Research Council, says that the maths and physics areas of her council's work did seem to experience some difficulty in filling their PhD studentships this year.

"The story we were getting a lot of the time was that graduates had got jobs with substantial salaries. They were particularly hard to fill in earth observation and atmospheric science, which both require people with strong numerate and quantitative backgrounds.

"It is something we are looking at. We need to work with the other councils to see how pervasive a problem it is. We may have to look at other measures of making [research] a more attractive option."

Dr Angela Hind, head of research career awards at the Medical Research Council, comments: "I think it would be fair to say that all the research councils are looking at stipend levels at the moment."

She does not know whether her own council has identified a problem yet, but it is planning to review the level of student stipends and examine the quality of postgraduate student intake.

Professor Ron Amann, chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, says: "All of us are concerned that the present stipend level is very low, as a sum of money for a postgraduate student to live on. Ideally, if additional funding were available, we would like to consider increasing the stipends.

"However, even though our stipend is lower than we would wish - round about pounds 5,300 a year - we still manage to attract very high quality students indeed. Something like 50 per cent of our applicants for doctoral studentships have firsts, and more than 70 per cent of them already have masters' degrees.

"We have noticed in the last year that there has been a slight reduction in the number of applications and that may turn out to be a trend, but I do not think we are in a position yet to be able to judge that.

He is also concerned about the effect of student fees on student debt, and the numbers coming forward in future to study for PhDs.

Another problem which has been exacerbating the potentially fragile state of research in British universities for many years now, is the underfunding of laboratory and research support. This is work supported by money from the Higher Education Funding Councils.

Sir Aaron Klug, president of the Royal Society, warned in December last year that UK research and the economy could be damaged unless this problem is tackled urgently.

He said: "The Funding Council money can no longer cover both the indirect costs associated with Research Council grants and the infrastructure to support these and other research activities."

Sir Aaron added that the Society strongly supported the Dearing Report's recommendation that the additional money needed for funding indirect costs should be met by an increase in government funding to the Research Councils.

It wanted the Government to find the additional pounds 110m now, and comparable sums in subsequent years.

If the Government were unwilling to provide this funding for Britain's world-class science base, he warned, then the country would witness a serious reduction in the amount and quality of science in the UK, reducing the number of trained people who might eventually take their place in high-technology industry, and reducing the attractiveness of the UK for inward investment.