UK not upping pay for postdocs

RCUK report shows many schools aren't applying for extra funding to supplement young researcher salaries

By | August 1, 2006

Too few British universities are making the most of a chance to boost postdoctoral salaries that has been available to them for the past two years, a new report showed on Tuesday (August 1). The report, commissioned by Research Councils UK, found that the vast majority of investigators are failing to apply for extra funding that would let them increase postdoc salaries in projects funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and other councils. "Many institutions are continuing to offer posts at around £20,000 when they could award higher salaries," said Louise Ackers and colleagues from the Centre for the Study of Law and Policy in Europe, at the University of Leeds. The extra funds could allow them to offer thousands of pounds more, they said. The Leeds group was asked to investigate the impact of "enhancements" to PhD stipends and postdoc salaries that were made available after a 2002 government review found the UK was losing early career researchers in some important areas. Indeed, most investigators didn't even know extra money was available. Researchers supported by BBSRC and other councils can apply for money to pay their postdocs more than they normally might, particularly in disciplines that have trouble retaining young researchers, such as animal disease research and functional genomics. Where this scheme has been taken up, it is having a positive impact, according to Ackers and colleagues. On the basis of an online survey and interviews with researchers at universities, they found that pay increases had helped encourage people to begin PhDs and move on to postdoctoral work. The online questionnaire showed that most postdocs thought salaries around the £30,000 level would make a difference in attracting more applicants for posts. The Leeds report shows that in many cases investigators are not applying for the extra funding, said Rosie Beales from the RCUK Research Careers and Diversity Unit. Among 292 principal investigators who responded to the online survey, only 16% were aware of the extra money that was available to pay postdocs. Of 277 who answered questions about whether they had postdocs on an enhanced salary, 88% said they did not. Kaihsu Tai, secretary of the Oxford University Research Staff Society, said his experience echoed those figures. "This is the first time I've heard of it," he told The Scientist. "I've never heard of anybody getting it." Beales said the research councils wanted to remind staff in universities that enhanced salaries and stipends can be sought. "The primary thing is that they should be applying for this," she told The Scientist. Julia Goodfellow, head of BBSRC, said the research councils were committed to supporting the supply lines of researchers. "The increase in postgraduate stipends and postdoctoral salaries has made a tangible difference," she said in a statement. "The Research Councils realize that there are still areas of critical shortage. ...we are also calling on the research community to apply for enhanced salaries when making grant applications if they face a skills shortage." John Bothwell, a postdoctoral researcher at the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth and founder of the UK's nascent National Research Staff Association, pointed out that more money is always welcome, but that other considerations are perhaps more important to postdocs -- including contract security and career path. "Nobody really works as a postdoc for the salary," he told The Scientist. Better pay won't really address the root cause of postdoc unhappiness, he said, which is "the limited opportunities for postdocs to be recognized as capable of attracting funding and mentoring other researchers. In short, the lack of opportunities to prove yourself capable of acting as an independent researcher." Other initiatives from the Research Councils, such as the popular Academic Fellowships, are more helpful for helping postdocs get a chance to set up their own lab, he said. Stephen Pincock Links within this article "SET for Success: Final report of Sir Gareth Roberts' Review" Julia Goodfellow John Bothwell S Pincock, "UK postdocs eye contract changes," The Scientist, June 1, 2006. S Jaffe and P Park, "Postdocs: Pawing out of purgatory," The Scientist, March 24, 2003. Academic Fellowships boost interdisciplinary research and outreach says new report T Agres, "Best places to work 2006: Postdocs," The Scientist, March 1, 2006.

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