A knotty mess of problems affects people doing academic research in the UK. Rachel Brazil tries to untie the tangle
UK research, including chemistry, punches above its weight. A 2017 report commissioned by government found the UK has 4.1% of the world’s researchers but produces 15% of the world’s most highly cited articles. This might then indicate a healthy and flourishing research community, but many say this output comes with too high a human cost. They point to a lack of diversity in academic appointments, a leaky pipeline that sees female researchers leaving the sector before they reach senior roles, and alarmingly high levels of bullying and harassment. In addition, early career researchers face years of temporary contracts and insecurity, with only 10% likely to gain permanent academic positions.
Even though this discussion is very much about what’s dysfunctional in the research culture in the UK, we have drawn upon its links and ideas in our work in Australasia. We have included links to 17 related items.
The reality of the very competitive environment is you get collateral damage
So where did it all go wrong? According to Stroobants, one of the central issues is hyper-competition. ‘Competition can be good, but I think we are now in an area where there is competition to such extent that it is causing negative consequences,’ she explains. Mark Miodownik, a materials scientist at University College London, agrees. ‘The number of people who want to have a career in science has gone up exponentially in the last few decades.’ In recent years he has been interested in how we can improve research culture and chaired a 2018 Royal Society conference on this issue. ‘There is no way I would get a job now on the CV I produced to get my first job and I think if you talk to most academic my age, they will say the same thing,’ he concedes. But the problem isn’t restricted to hiring. ‘Once you’re in the department, if you’re not producing high quality research papers and getting grants, you’re under a lot of pressure,’ he explains. ‘The reality of the very competitive environment is you get collateral damage.’