Letter: The true value of scientific research

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The Independent Online
Sir: I read with interest the article by Tom Wilkie and colleagues ('Wanted: a boost for British research', 24 May) and the accompanying leading article dealing with the impending publication of a White Paper on the future of science and technology in Britain.

Whereas you highlighted the poor record of our government in supporting research, I feel the crucial cause for our decline as a leader in scientific research was missed. It is simply that there is no career structure for young scientists in this country. Many young PhDs begin their three-year temporary contracts at salaries between pounds 14,000 and pounds 16,000 per annum (after six to eight years' intensive university training), often with no guarantee of permanence, regardless of performance.

As a consequence, the A-level requirement for entry to read science subjects in university has dropped dramatically in the last 20 years; our young people realise that well-paid jobs, on track to lucrative elevated administrative positions, are more probable after reading general studies, economics, law, etc.

To blame, as is common practice, science teachers in our secondary schools for poor enrolment into science is a gross misrepresentation of the situation. Senior academics, who head our royal societies and other academic groupings and who might influence this downward trend, seem unfortunately to have been neutralised by the expectation of honours if they do not 'rock the boat'.

The Government must realise that research is about intelligent people pursuing the quest for knowledge over a wide range of areas, and that these people need to be supported with realistic career opportunities. Until this happens, front-line research in Britain will continue to decline. Novel industrial development is inherently linked with scientific breakthroughs; thus the economic prospect in this country looks quite bleak, unless the Government addresses the problem of career opportunities in science with great urgency.

Yours faithfully,


Harpenden, Hertfordshire

27 May