Researchers are under more pressure than ever, but if you’re an early to mid-career researcher, you’re probably feeling the strain more than most. Huge workloads, job insecurity and a lack of training are all contributing to a crisis on both a short and long term basis.
Anyone working in scientific research knows how important this sector is, and governments and public bodies are also aware that a strong research and innovation ecosystem equates to a stronger economy. A number of studies have looked at the rate of return on public investment in research by examining the links between research and innovation, across a range of industries. In terms of annual rates of return, median values range between 20% and 50%. However, given that so much research is in the hands of those just starting out on their careers, any government strategy aimed at supporting research should take their needs into account.
What’s happened so far?
In the developed world, various strategies and programs have been implemented to support scientific research and those undertaking it. In 2007, the UK Government recognized the need for a national framework which would position the country as one of the best places in the world to conduct research, science and innovation. The UK Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers was created to set out clear standards that research staff could expect from their employers, while also encouraging the uptake of training in transferable skills in order to stay competitive in both internal and external markets.
More recently, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) was established by UK higher education funding councils, with the ultimate aim of promoting the quality and delivery of research in the UK.
“Important at this time is a very supportive environment, both intellectually and fiscally… Pressure on early-stage researchers to publish often militates against their collaborating with business or the public sector and this needs to be addressed urgently through the Research Excellence Framework” (Council for Science and Technology)
In Europe, the Lisbon Strategy aimed to make the EU ‘the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010’. Recognizing that early career researchers were central to this plan, the European Commission focused on improved support for them, driven by the need for better career development, transferable skills and collaboration.
The US National Science Foundation (the NSF) is also clear in its aim of supporting the next generation of researchers to advance science, arguing that the significant investment costs are justified by the promise of future discoveries and advances.
What impact have these strategies actually had on early career researchers?
Despite best intentions, many of the problems experienced by early career researchers remain unresolved, and in some cases, have even been exacerbated by government policies. The REF has resulted in controversy among the scientific community, with many feeling under pressure to focus solely on those areas of research with strategic importance. Researchers have felt like they’ve needed to ‘play the game’, holding back or rushing out publications to fit the REF cycle. Other controversial aspects of the REF include:
- Academics have been driven towards a short-term approach to research, focusing on ‘safe’ subjects.
- Institutions recruit staff with certain REF profiles in order to enhance their REF status.
- Impact is too narrowly interpreted and defined by publication in certain journals.
The REF has resulted in additional anxieties for researchers. The constant pressure to publish is a key concern for early career researchers, many of whom are lacking in support and opportunity. A 2015 study by the European Science Foundation (ESF) tracked the careers of PhD holders from five research organizations up to seven years following graduation, and found that only a third ended up in a tenured position. Researchers feel that publishing more will increase their chances of securing a permanent position, but with so many early career researchers finding the publishing process difficult, further support and development is surely needed.
In short, past and current government strategies have not gone far enough in helping early career researchers, and in some cases, have actually had a negative impact. Governments and policy makers can play a crucial role in providing support and training for early career researchers. After all, investing in the future of science is critical to economic growth. However, this support needs to be much more centered on publication and publishing processes such as writing, submission and peer review.
Our next blog post on this theme, coming soon to Wiley Exchanges, addresses the specific training needs of early career researchers and what can be done to help.
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