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.
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.