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Science is Vital award-winner refocuses campaign on careers

Jennifer Rohn—a cell biologist, novelist and science campaigner—has won Research Fortnight’s 2011 Achiever-of-the-Year award. Rohn was recognised in our inaugural annual award for her work to found the Science is Vital campaign, which successfully fought against major cuts to the UK science budget ahead of the 2010 comprehensive spending review.

Rohn is, for the time being, refocusing the campaign to tackle the sticky issue of science careers. This will include pushing for more permanent postdoctoral positions, a subject close to her own heart. Rohn points to a report by the Royal Society showing that only about 4 per cent of PhD students end up in academic research positions. Just a few more opportunities would make a “huge difference to morale”, she argues.

Rohn took part in a roundtable discussion on the topic last month, co-hosted by science minister David Willetts and the Royal Society. Most delegates at the meeting—including policymakers and representatives for education and industry—acknowledged that there was a problem with the careers structure, she says. However, she was disappointed to hear some of them argue that more permanent positions would make postdoctoral researchers become stale. “As if giving someone job security automatically makes them go stale,” she says. “I think that’s very insulting.”

The solution, she says, is either to create more positions or to equip people at an early stage to explore alternative career paths “in an institutionalised way”.

“I think there is appetite for change,” she says. “I got the distinct impression [about] this meeting that something will happen—it’s not just talk.”

Rohn is personally experiencing the pressure of the competitive careers structure. Her contract as a Wellcome Trust fellow at University College London is about to come to an end. She has yet to secure a new contract, but says there is a promising opportunity in the pipeline.

Rohn is keen to continue her career as a researcher. Although passionate about science communication and policy, it certainly seems her heart belongs to science. “I actually left research for five years and went to science publishing,” she says. “I really liked the job…had a permanent position, lots of money, but I decided to go back to the lab because…it didn’t fulfil me.”