Early career researchers need to learn how policy is made and assessed to encourage more joined-up thinking in science
Will Hutton recently set alarm bells ringing regarding the importance of postgraduate training in UK universities, pointing to the decline in the numbers of English graduates going on to study at postgraduate level. But should we also be concerned about whether our current training of science PhDs and postdoctoral researchers prepares them for future employment?
This is particularly critical given that only one in 10 postdocs can now expect to find senior posts in academia, usually after years as research assistants supported by short-term grants. Many science PhDs will need to find employment in fields other than those for which their training prepared them.
Our lives are increasingly affected, for better or worse, by innovations in science; some of these innovations we rely on to present future threats. Developments in fields ranging from gene technology to energy production offer real benefits to society, but also raise wider societal questions. We urgently need a better understanding of where, and how, science and technology fit into the cultural and industrial life of the nation. Scientists should become more proactive in providing advice to politicians and policy-makers where proposed new policies involve knowledge they possess from their research.
Yet there is often a disconnect between our policy-makers and the scientific community. The nation would gain much if these two elements of our public life could be brought closer to create some better joined-up thinking. There should be some preparation, in their postgraduate training, for this aspect of the scientist’s role in society.
Training for most postgraduate scientists starts – and too often ends – in the laboratory, despite the fact that due to the shortage of senior university posts, many will need to deploy their skills elsewhere. With today’s emphasis on obtaining funding, the focus in universities is on achieving “high research ratings” through research published in premier league journals. This is not a bad objective, but in the process, preparing PhD students and postdocs for careers outside academia receives scant attention.
There should be a widening of training and experience to fit them for roles outside mainstream research. They should be encouraged to see the relevance and political consequences of science and technology in general, and the relevance of their field of science in particular to national policy. They should be prepared to be proactive in explaining the nature of scientific evidence to those who ultimately make the policy decisions.
Published research is rarely black or white and there are significant areas of uncertainty and debate among experts in areas such as, for example, climate change, insecticides and bee health, and badgers and bovine TB. The policy-makers err towards a consensus view rather than a sound understanding of the underlying science.
The scientist’s role should therefore be to interpret evidence for them and bring perspective, particularly where there is a body of evidence pointing in a different direction. It would also be of benefit if the fundamental concepts behind the “scientific method” could be more widely applied to policy-making.
Postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers should learn something of the way that policy is made and assessed – and the routes available to provide information and advice to the policy-makers. Newton’s Apple Foundation was established to help bridge this gap between the science community and the policy-making processes. Over the past four years, it has run workshops in universities, in Westminster and elsewhere to introduce early career researchers to the world of policy-making.
Researchers are brought into contact with those in parliament, government and the civil service with the main objective to help them understand that they have a part to play in the process. Crucially, they are given positive examples where scientists have affected policy thinking, such as their influence on the 2008 human fertilisation and embryology act and the reconsideration of the EU directive which would prevent the use of MRI in hospitals.
Approaching 1,000 students have taken part in these workshops, and the demand for them is increasing. The great majority are naive about how policy is made. However, feedback indicates that attending has awakened an appreciation of the importance of scientific evidence and advice in policymaking.
In training PhD candidates and postdocs, we should be offering a wider experience to open them up to other career options outside the academic research environment. These include in industrial R&D and management, the civil service and even non-scientific roles in businesses and the professions. They should be helped to understand where science and technology fit into the life of the nation, and where they will find useful roles in which their knowledge and experience will be valued.
Michael W Elves is chairman and Ian Gibson is president of president of Newton’s Apple Foundation