Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Thrift Review

As reported many hundreds of years ago the Thrift Review is now out.

It tries to address the issues that mean that many promising young graduates do not see research careers as attractive. Whilst the report concentrates on academia, Thrift also recognises that some of these issues are not unique to academic careers but also apply to research careers in the private and third sectors.

The UK lags behind many other countries, and behind the OECD average for the number of researchers per thousand population. Other competitor economies have expanded their researcher base far quicker than the UK over the last 20 years. This lack of movement may render the UK’s research base vulnerable in future if we continue to fall behind. Demographic challenges - well covered in the report - make us even more vulnerable. There is a very interesting section on widening participation that is unfortunately hampered by a lack of clear evidence, but which ought to prompt urgent further investigation.

But let us get on to the more substantial part of the report. Section 2.3.1 is titled ‘The Postdoctoral Experience’, and this is where the insecurity and lack of clear structure and transparency that surrounds postdoctoral researchers is examined. Thrift quotes Janet Metcalfe of Vitae, who summarises the issue in one characteristically pithy phrase:
“...there is still a need for honesty and openness about the likelihood of ‘success’ for individuals in academic research.”
He also notes, correctly, that there is a serious issue of morale as many postdoctoral researchers feel insecure, unconsulted and undervalued. There is a sober admission that the apparent move away from fixed term contracts to open-ended ones by many universities has merely led to the routine use of redundancy. But again any concrete suggestions about what could be done and what implications this has are limited and disappointing.

Unfortunately, the Review produces the traditional summary for any Review of this kind, and one that almost could be written before we start: things are broadly good, we could improve, there are lots of initiatives that need bringing together, more research needs to be done.

Whilst this may be largely true, such a predictable conclusion is disappointing given some of the rather serious problems that exist with careers for young researchers. Particularly disappointing given the remit of the Review, is the lack of recommendations directly addressing the lack of attractiveness of research careers to young researchers.

The Review has a sense of a lost opportunity. It does a good job of drawing together existing work – although there is not a lot of it, and it has been done by a rather narrow group of people and is consequently well known by those involved in the area.

It notes that there are a series of issues but it seems to be suggesting that much of it is under control (some is, but not the most serious), and that more research is needed elsewhere (it is, but Rome burns in the meantime). This author appreciates the constraints of a thoughtful academic working without much of the information he might like and under a narrow remit, but feels that this Review could have been bolder and could have produced a less predictable conclusion. But Thrift does shine some lights on areas that have, even in an under-researched field, received less attention, and for this he ought to be commended.

It remains to be seen what effect this Review will actually have. I remain guardedly optimistic but feel that whilst the conditions that have led to serious issues of morale amongst many postdoctoral researchers persist, then we will continue to see a drop in the proportion of researchers in the population, and the UK research base will continue to be eroded. This author hopes he is wrong.

A reader from DIUS (yes!) would like to point out to anyone who would like to discuss the issues in the report that there is a blog available to leave your thoughts. I urge everyone to do so.