Careers and Lib Dem science policy

The worlds of the scientist and the politician do not often cross.  Only one of our current MPs was a practicing scientist: Dr Julian Huppert, Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, formerly a researcher at the university in that city.  As a result, and despite scientists’ usual disdain for those climbing the greasy pole, Dr H has become a bit of a pin-up for the politically interested scientist.

Recently, he has written a proposal for a Lib Dem science policy, summarised in a post on CaSE’s blog, which will be debated at next month’s Lib Dem conference.

The main concern of this blog is the poor quality of academic careers, and so I confess I have not gone through the policy proposal in depth.  As an aside, much of it seems vague, with few quantitative statements, which is bad: it’s not a political proposal if it’s impossible to disagree with.  The intention to raise the science budget by 3% over inflation annually (paragraph 12) is a welcome exception.

But the few sections dealing with careers certainly are vague, and that’s disappointing.  Paragraph 87 acknowledges the “fragmentation of the academic career structure after the doctoral level”, but the proposed solution is only to “seek to provide greater certainty for good postdocs, such as by supporting the RCUK Academic Fellowship scheme”.  This was an admirable scheme to provide long-term postdoctoral contracts which led into permanent academic posts.  But these fellowships haven’t been running since 2007, and no comparable scheme has replaced them.  And “to seek to provide” isn’t much of a commitment.  Incidentally, in his research career, Dr Huppert was funded by this scheme.  Likewise, paragraph 88 proposes only “to encourage” exit interviews for people leaving science careers, in order to understand better why they leave; there’s no mention of what will be done afterward.

Let me note two good points.  Paragraph 81 mentions that teaching-focussed roles should exist within universities, which is quite correct.  Without realising the contradiction, academics often disparage both undergraduate teaching and teaching fellow positions, and so support for teaching roles, for those who want them, should certainly be enhanced.  Paragraph 24 proposes secondments between research councils and academia “to allow research council staff to remain research-active while also acting as science administrators”.  This is also a very good idea, and would help remove some of the distrust in this relationship.

So even though I’m not wildly convinced by this paper, I’m disappointed that I can’t find comparable proposals from Labour or the Tories.  And we do need a science policy, and the Lib Dems are part of the government.  So if you are able, you could do worse than amble down to Brighton for the Lib Dem conference to debate this.  Regrettably, for I am sure it would be a riveting experience, I am compelled to be elsewhere.

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What goes around…

… for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” (Galatians 6:7)

Queen Mary, fresh from their elevation to the Russell Group, are keen to boost the quality of their research.  Their School of Biological and Chemical Sciences have launched a restructuring programme, which will evaluate scientists based on the number and impact factor of their publications, and the amount of their research income.  Those who are under-performing are at risk of redundancy.

This move has brought essentially universal condemnation.  In particular, see David Colquhoun’s blogpost “Is Queen Mary University of London trying to commit scientific suicide?”.  The reliance on impact factors to evaluate scientists’ work feeds into a thorough discussion about their usefulness or otherwise on Stephen Curry’s blog, specifically the post “Sick of Impact Factors”.

Let’s deal with some points straightaway.  Yes, the impact factor of a journal is an extremely blunt instrument to measure the quality of a piece of research, and as an assessment of a particular researcher, it’s all but useless.  There is no guarantee that employing this as a metric to assess their staff will boost the quality of Queen Mary’s research, and every worry that it will drag down their research quality, by making some talented and creative scientists redundant.

As a postdoc, I know all this.  The reason why I know all this is because any time I get feedback from another failed application for a fellowship or lectureship, it’s always my publication list that lets me down.  Not enough publications.  Not enough high-impact publications.  I don’t think anyone actually reads my work or evaluates what I might bring to the department, they simply run their fingers down my publication list, searching for the “right” journals.  They find none, and my application is rejected.

Now, the same method is being applied to them.  And, of course, their knickers are in a twist because some of them might lose their jobs.  I’m trying hard to be sympathetic, but it’s a bit difficult because this is exactly how postdocs have been judged for years (it might be worth mentioning that I’ve been on either a fixed-term contract or on a contract with an in-built redundancy date every day of my academic working life).  So if it’s not acceptable to evaluate professors in this way, will we soon see a new way of evaluating postdocs?

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First post

I’ve been a postdoc for several years.  And in that time, I’ve often noticed a disconnect between what academics say and what they do.  This has led me to become somewhat disgruntled.  In fact, I am not at all gruntled.  I think of myself as entirely gruntle-free.  This finds an outlet here.

I work in the sciences and live in the UK.

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