Research Posts: Buying time for young scientists: A Royal Society scheme is helping researchers to gain permanent posts in universities, says Liz Heron

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The Independent Online
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. The aim is for every fellow to secure a permanent post before the 10 years is up, preferably within eight years.

A recent survey of 76 scientists who have left the scheme found that 79 per cent obtained permanent posts in UK higher education, where 75 per cent are still working. Only 16 per cent are now in jobs abroad, although 34 per cent had at least one research post abroad before joining the scheme.

Fellows have been highly successful in gaining permanent employment: of the 30 appointed in 1983 whose tenure ended this September, only two remained in the last academic year and both are now in permanent jobs. The average period spent in the scheme is four and a half years.

The survey also indicates that fellows had considerable success in the research they pursued. They each published an average of 10 research papers since joining the scheme and were more successful than permanent university staff of a similar age in obtaining research funds from other sources. Some 91 per cent were collaborating at a national or international level with other scientists.

'The idea we try to push is that they should spend the first few years trying to establish themselves as internationally renowned scientists and then progressively start to think about a permanent job,' Sir Brian says.

Not surprisingly, this message is resoundingly endorsed by young scientists. More than 4,000 have applied for the 311 appointments made to date and 99 per cent of former fellows say the scheme has helped their careers in the long term.

Current fellows are exploiting the scheme's flexibility in a variety of ways. For Dr Brian Boyle, a researcher into quasars based at Cambridge University's Institute of Astronomy, only the fellowship prevented him taking up a permanent lecturing job at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

'The job was very attractive because science has a higher profile in Australia and academic salaries are 25 to 30 per cent higher than in the UK. But I took a Royal Society fellowship instead because it allows me the freedom to devote 100 per cent of my time to research,' he says.

The Government's White Paper on science and technology, published earlier this year, recommended that research councils should follow the Royal Society's example and fund the researcher rather than the research project. Sir Brian Follett says: 'The key thing in these schemes is medium-term security. You really need to give people five to seven years to enable them to concentrate more effectively on research.'

(Photograph omitted)

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