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Careering out of control: short-term contracts harm research

The prevalence of short-term contracts and a lack of permanent research positions are damaging UK science, according to a report published on 5 October by lobby group Science is Vital.

The report Careering Out of Control: A Crisis in the UK science profession? is based on a survey of around 700 UK-based scientists and was carried out at the behest of David Willets, minister for universities and science.

The survey asked respondents to rank the importance of seven issues relating to science careers. Respondents were also given the opportunity to submit individual written responses outlining their views.

By far the biggest cause for concern in the results was job instability.

“I would remain a postdoc and keep doing the job I’m very good at,” commented one respondent. “Unfortunately that is not possible as there are no permanent positions…and thus more money will be spent instead training less experienced people to do the same job, who then again will have to leave research. It’s a very wasteful system.”

“This is by far the worst thing, we have a duty of care to people in their early forties who are forced to leave science careers,” says Jenny Rohn, chairwoman of Science is Vital.

The lack of permanent mid-career science posts and the need to continually search for external funding have a negative effect on the science itself. “The major problem is the loss of continuity: specialised skills acquired in particular by post-doctoral scientists need to be passed on from one ‘generation’ of scientists to the next but the current uncertainty means that experienced postdocs cannot be retained or are simply finding more secure jobs elsewhere,” said a principal investigator.

Other issues affecting people pursuing science careers include low pay, the need to relocate to find work, the pressures placed on families and relationships and discrimination against people who have taken a non-traditional career path.

Willetts has called a meeting at the Royal Society in the next few weeks to discuss the survey’s findings.