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The Independent Online
I WAS delighted that on the evening of the last Wednesday in April, the lecture theatre at the Royal Institution was filled to capacity. The talk, given by Dr Francesca Happe, was on autism - and was a clear crowd-puller. However, my particular pleasure was that the obvious success of this particular series of lectures was continuing. What made this lecture, and those that have preceded it, so special, is that they showcase - on the last Wednesday of every month - a young scientist. After all, it is rare that someone who may still be on a fixed-term contract, or may still be less than 40 years old, has the chance to describe his or her work to a general audience. Very often these scientists risk having no acclaim even within their narrow peer community: they may well work with a self- serving boss or merely one who sees no reason to help them develop their own independent career profile.

But surely we need to do more for young scientists than simply giving a chosen few the chance to show their wares in a venerable setting. After all, the future of UK science rests with this next generation, and very little is being done to encourage the brightest and best to resist the lure of the City. A very serious problem of funding university science, from either the private or public sector, is that it offers no security for young scientists, who are arguably at the most productive stage of their careers. Although the funding bodies each have their own variations of a pyramid-type career structure, those who do not make it through to the next stage up, may suddenly find themselves unemployed. This prospect is hardly likely to attract the maximum number of good young scientists.

Of course, the counter-argument runs that the very best may benefit from prestigious, relatively long-term awards from the Royal Society and the research councils. However, such individuals, especially women, may not have the confidence even to apply. Moreover, even for the most able, the current pervasive predilection for risk aversive "safe" research, the bleak prospects of long-term security, not to mention the modest salaries, may still serve to deter. Above all, there is the underlying mood that one is simply there as the hired gun. Some discover that they are more suited to technical and practical aspects of research, than pursuing a pet theory. Yet for these green-fingered practical types especially, the prospect of staying in a laboratory is vanishingly small. In general, many non-tenured young scientists feel disaffection for their universities, which rarely take an active interest in their career development: the so-called "concordat" between contract research staff and universities seems to exist in little more than name only.

It seems to me it would be good idea to expand the dual support system to help establish university-funded posts for those who would not be successful in applying for their own innovative research funds, but who are invaluable in the practical expedition of projects. As well as laboratory managers of this type, there should also be funds for secretarial and technical posts to free up the more imaginative scientists to do what they do best. Yes, it all costs money; but is it truly economical to have some expensively trained individual spending the day photocopying?

As a start towards tackling the problem of job security, there could be a national agency to match up post-doctoral workers with vacant positions. The same agency could also help find placements in alternative careers and incidentally, by so doing, providing potential employers with a valuable pool of talent that might not have been realised through the vagaries of the normal advertisements.

A further scheme might be to develop more flexibility in crossing the boundaries between the public and private sectors. If industry had routine secondments of researchers to public sector laboratories, then the prospect of entering a company might not seem so final. Similarly, if there were more interactions - "twinning" - between research laboratories and secondary school teachers, then a career as a science teacher might seem an extension of, rather than a rupture with, a career in science.

Above all, young scientists need to be encouraged and appreciated. At the moment, a career in public sector science research could seem a sterile hierarchy determined by seniority - and paid accordingly! One highly heretical suggestion would be that Government and university mandarins seriously consider performance-related pay for scientists on fixed-term contracts.

There will always be those who love science so much that they would do it for free. But to attract the numbers of intellectually courageous scientists we will need to meet the challenge of science in the next century requires a big change in the establishment mind-set.

The writer is Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford and a director of the Royal Institution

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