Monday, November 06, 2006

Do we need more scientists?

Blair has been bleating on about how Britain needs more scientists, and how we (scientists) should all pretend to live the lives of celebrities in order to con the kiddies into thinking it's an attractive career encourage more schoolchildren to study science. Or something like that. It doesn't move the debate on beyond where we were a few weeks ago, as far as I can tell.

Blair's primary concern appears to be the profits of UK PLC and, as I've already explained, an oversupply of compliant debt-ridden post-doc fodder is a great way of maintaining downward pressure on the salaries of those who (so we are told) are so important for the future of the economy.

Obviously, the schoolchildren who are abandoning science subjects in droves are having none of it, and I don't blame then.

Bryan Lawrence asks "who's going to do all the hard environmental science then?" To which I reply, how about the 200 redundant CEH scientists, along with those from Silsoe or the Hannah that I blogged about previously (and no doubt many more, jettisoned in smaller and less news-worthy tranches). Of course, some of these scientists may have skills that are not directly attuned to the priorities of today, since they committed the serious offence of being educated and trained a decade or several ago, and have probably been specialising ever since. (It's worth noting that all the rhetoric about "interdisciplinary science" almost always means Expert in field A talking (or pretending to talk) to Expert in field B, rather than anyone becoming moderately expert in both A and B. It's not for nothing that a scientist can be summed up as someone who knows more and more about less and less. Our career structures and evaluation pretty well force such specialisation upon us, in fact.) So all it takes is a change in the political fashions, and your decades of experience go down the tubes. This risk was very evident when I was working at Silsoe - an agricultural engineering research establishment - shortly after its parent Agricultural and Food Research Council morphed into the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (biotech is sexy: chicken harvesters [video here] apparently aren't). It seems clear to me that despite the Govt's urgings, the material rewards of a career in science do not come close to compensating for the personal investment and risk of a premature "retirement". For a similar effort (and assuming a comparable intelligence), you could become a doctor or lawyer and have a job for life with several times the salary. Unless and until there is some evidence of this state of affairs changing, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the declining interest in science continuing. Of course, there will always be a few eccentrics for whom the thrill of solving interesting problems is enough, but if the Govt or industry wants more than that, they will have to be prepared to pay for it.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

perhaps it's going the way of computer & engineering jobs --- enrollments in these fields are drastically down (esp in the states) as kids see a lot of work, low pay, and the jobs going off to "cheap" India & China. but heaven-forfend a scientist make anywhere near as much as a skeptic "lobbyist!"

Lumo said...

The decrease of science in Britain is scary. The total amount of physical sciences is shrinking in a rapid way, and the kind of science that survives is mostly soft science, pseudoscience, and politicized science. See

physics fades from UK classrooms and its citations. Is this really the country of Maxwell and many others?

Anonymous said...

It's supply & demand -- there will always be desperate, underpaid eastern Europeans & Indians & Chinese to pick up the slack.

James Annan said...

Of course, "politicised science" is just a synonym for "relevant and important science". IMO there should be room for both useful and useless science - the latter as an essentially cultural pursuit (think cosmology, high energy physics, string theory and much pure mathematics...). However, the speed with which fashions change makes the former risky in the context of a 40 year career. I think it's grossly unfair that if your science has any chance of being useful, you have to pretty well justify every last penny in terms of direct economic benefit, but if your science is absolutely and unequivocally useless, you get a free pass on this requirement.

I'm all for the free movement of scientists (and indeed other professions) between nations, but OTOH I think it is worth thinking carefully about to what extent we want the UK scientific workforce to be made up of immigrants. Anecdotally, my colleagues seem to find that there are few good UK-born applicants for post-doc positions. But does this matter if (as seems to be the case) the foreigners are good?

EliRabett said...

It's not so much that you learn A and B as you start out in A, learn that and then move into B. That means you have different skills and viewpoints than the natives of B, for better or worse. As time goes on you find yourself, as my grandfather did, forgetting a lot of your native language.

James Annan said...

Certainly we all seem to take a bit of a random walk through a range of areas. But if your last project was designing robotic milking machines (say) then you are unlikely to be able to compete with a fresh-faced biotech postdoc at genetically engineering herbicide resistance into crops...

Actually it seems like quite a few of the Silsoe people have set themselves up locally in agricultural consultancy. There is, at least, some money in farming (if not much profit).

EliRabett said...

Not unless they are automating the testing process.....

EliRabett said...

I think I should be a little less cryptic. I have papers where I jocked a laser or set up some electronics for a bunch of biologists/EEs. This lead to an interchange of "what the hell are you doings" and eventually added value.

You live long enough and strange things happen

Anonymous said...

What Eli said.

I currently work for hard rockers-turned-paleoclimate dudes. If I ever get my ultra-low level alkali measurements working, they will be equally applicable to forams and meteorites. Learing more and more about something is fine, as long as some of that learning includes learning new ways to apply what you already know.

As for British science, I reckon the UK exports a large number of quality post-docs. We have a slew of Poms down under. So a government policy that encourages learning science is fine, as long as you acknowledge that those people are going to emmigrate as soon as they get their degrees.

James Annan said...

Learing more and more about something is fine, as long as some of that learning includes learning new ways to apply what you already know.

Sure, it's great until the Govt decides it doesn't care so much about that whole field, and then you are out the door. Having experienced about 4 separate rounds of redundancies in my 7 years at two different labs in the UK, each of which takes roughly a year from conception to endgame (AIUI the CEH thing is still at the discussion stage), I can tell you it doesn't make for a productive atmosphere.

Of course if enough people are on contracts, there's no need for redundancies - just don't renew, and say bye bye.