This blog was written by HEPI intern and KCL Physics PhD student Bethan Cornell. Bethan is the author of the recent HEPI publication, PhD Life: The Student Experience.
Earlier this week, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) published the Government’s UK Research and Development Roadmap, outlining how they intend to strengthen science, research and innovation across the UK.
The extensive 60-page document covers numerous themes and starts by being honest about what needs to be reformed. As an early career researcher, I know there is great room for positive change – here I outline the five things that I believe the Government has got right for young academics.
1. People focus
Throughout the document, the following question is asked:
What are we going to do? And how will we work with people to deliver our ambitions?
‘People’ is an important but often overlooked word in academia. Currently, career paths for young researchers are defined by many things other than their personal attributes: publications, citations, H-index, grants won… Furthermore, your experience as a junior researcher is often solely dependent on the people around you. A PhD, for example, can be made or broken by the personal relationship between the supervisor and student.
It is very encouraging to see the government clearly committing to a people-focussed strategy. It is researchers who do research, not statistics. By investing in, and designing policy for, academics as people, the quality of research output will improve.
2. Recognition of poor research culture
The Roadmap states:
Some parts of R&D [research and development] exhibit features of an unhealthy work culture, including evidence of bullying, harassment and discrimination. Progress to address these issues has been too slow.
We will work with funders to set clear expectations of research organisations in supporting safe and open research cultures that lead to high integrity of research. This includes prevention strategies to tackle bullying and harassment.
Research culture is a particularly important issue for young researchers. We sit at the bottom of the academic hierarchy, and ahead of us is a future of unstable, short-term contracts in narrow fields where most researchers know everyone. This makes us especially dependent on those further ahead in their careers, which in turn sadly, makes bullying and harassment both easy for perpetrators and hard for victims to speak up about.
Early career researchers need more support to help them when things go wrong and the Government’s recognition of the need for change is encouraging. It is important that they stay true to their intentions and see them through with firm action.
3. Desire to improve diversity and inclusion within research
The Roadmap recognises:
We need to nurture and support talent from all backgrounds and experiences, embracing all cultures and respecting all viewpoints. … We want science to be for everyone no matter what their background.
We must remove any barriers and dismantle any inequalities in the system that limit the ambitions, inclusion and participation of people from any background EDI [equality, diversity and inclusion] requires a multifaceted response.
There has been strong recognition in recent weeks that research needs to do more to include people from all backgrounds. Movements across social media such as #BlackinTheIvory have highlighted how difficult forging a career in academia can be for many groups of people. Many researchers – especially junior ones from under-represented groups – will be pleased to see the Government aims to address inequalities in academia.
The Roadmap shows that the Government is still unsure of how this will happen, but it is encouraging to see a desire to learn and reach out to those with expertise. Hopefully this can be done swiftly and clear policy recommendations about this very important issue can be published soon.
4. Commitment to clarifying the researcher career pathway and move away from short-termism
It is encouraging to see recognition that:
Careers in research and development are not as attractive as they should be due to lower salaries and an overdependence on competing for short-term funding. There is an unclear career pathway for many technicians, graduates, early stage researchers and those re-entering research after a break.
There is also a commitment to better ways of measuring career success:
We must ensure assessment systems and processes are fair, efficient and free of bias, eradicating disparities where found to ensure our system is as meritocratic as possible.
Life as an early career researcher can be very unstable and is not attractive to everyone. You often live on a series of relatively poorly paid, short-term contracts and must ‘publish or perish’. There is generally an expectation that to make it into a permanent position you will move around regularly, ideally including time abroad, and publish lots of papers in good journals that get lots of citations. This is normally not conducive to family life or building a life generally outside of work and puts many people, and particularly many female researchers, off staying in academia. This is bad for UK research because it cannot guarantee that those who stay in the sector are the very best researchers.
The Government has provided a clear commitment to improving career development and career opportunities for young researchers and it will be interesting to see what this looks like in terms of detailed policy changes.
5. A new deal for funding PhD students
The Government commits to:
support early career researchers and innovators into the next stage of their careers, and provide more support for retraining over their entire careers. Our strategy will allow us to create a new deal for funding postgraduate research – increasing the investment in research training, numbers supported, models of delivery, stipend levels and helping graduates transition successfully into the next stage of their career, whether that is in academia, industry or in the public sector.
In my report PhD life: The UK student experience, we showed that the average PhD student earns less than the minimum wage and that PhD students in the UK have significantly poorer mental health that those in other parts of Europe. A commitment to increasing stipend levels and improving PhD training is, therefore, very welcome. Investing in young researchers is the only way to ensure that UK research is world-leading for years to come.