Postdocs, please go away

Back in 1973, when Julia Goodfellow finished her PhD at Britain's Open University, like many of her peers, she jumped on a plane to California to take up the de rigueur three-year overseas postdoc.

Mar 14, 2005
Stephen Pincock

Back in 1973, when Julia Goodfellow finished her PhD at Britain's Open University, like many of her peers, she jumped on a plane to California to take up the de rigueur three-year overseas postdoc.

After her stateside sojourn in the chemistry department at Stanford University, she returned to the UK to work as a researcher and then member of staff in the Department of Crystallography at London's Birk-beck College, where she stayed for more than 20 years before joining the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council in 2002.

Now, as the head of that government body, responsible for an annual research portfolio worth more than £260 million, the contacts and collaborations Goodfellow established in the US remain important to her and her work. So when the UK's Biochemical Society determined recently that fewer new PhD graduates were working overseas, she found it a worrying sign.

Each year, the society conducts a poll of biochemistry graduates, asking them about where they work and their future plans. Results of the latest poll appeared in the February issue of The Biochemist, the society's membership magazine. It included 1,863 first-degree graduates, 131 Masters' graduates and 217 PhDs, and was conducted 8 months after they graduated in 2003. It shows that the number of biochemistry PhD graduates who choose to work abroad was 1.4%, down from 9.3% recorded in 2002.

Brain drain is a real concern for the British science establishment, which sees many of its top researchers lured to the US by better funding and cushier working conditions. So at first glance, the results might have seemed to be good news; a flood reduced to a trickle. But from Good-fellow's perspective it's a sign of opportunities lost.

"I actually don't think it is good news," she says. "We want our new graduates to go out and get new ideas. Of course we want our scientists to come back to the UK eventually, but there's a lot of interest in them seeing more of the world."

On a recent trip to the US, for example, Goodfellow made a point of visiting some of the contacts she'd made more than 20 years ago. "Those networks are still really important."

Obviously there are a host of personal factors involved in each new postdoc's decision about where to study, but figures such as those from the Biochemical Society prompt questions about systemic influences. The Biochemical Society's policy manager, Mike Withnall, who conducted the survey, said visa restrictions for working in the US might play a part. Goodfellow wonders whether money problems might be a factor – the debts incurred by British university graduates are a growing issue, and setting up in a new country can be expensive. Or perhaps UK government efforts to provide more funds for young scientists are having an impact.

Whatever the reasons for the latest figures, Goodfellow says, it is important for the UK to emphasize the value of international collaboration in science. "We just need to get the balance right," she says.