A future in science?


Approximately 2 months ago the first knock-ons from the Government’s spending decisions was announced to the research community. Whilst the Government as a response to the Science is Vital campaign acknowledged not to cut science research spending.

The problem with science is that almost all research that is conducted not by industry with the aim of direct marketable end product within 5 years (eg a drug to sell for a pharmaceutical company) is paid for by the Government and to a lesser extent charities (think Cancer Research UK and the like). And the problem with that is that all things take time, and there might be 20 years research behind an idea before industry gets interested, if not an entire professional lifetime of several teams.

So whilst the Government has promised not to cut science funding until 2015, in real world terms by the time inflation and tax is taken into account that’s still a real-world equivalent of a 10% cut.

Thanks to the layers of bureaucracy involved, the Government hands it’s money to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). The BIS hands it’s money (~ £3 bn less a cut) to the Research Councils UK (RCUK). The RCUK then splits the money 7 ways between the research councils, each with a particular field: Arts & Humanities, Biotechnology & Biological Sciences, Engineering & Physical Sciences, Medical, Natural Environment and finally the Science & Technology Facilities.

This year each and every one of those councils have had their funds more than half.

For the purposes of this discussion I shall concern myself with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPRSC) as it is the one that I am most familiar with and it is the one that funds my (Chemistry) department most heavily.

This year the EPRSC is facing a cut from £49m to ~£23m.

In the defence of the EPRSC, they are in the same boat as all the other research councils and they were one of the first to reveil their hand.

The result of this cut, is a cut of new PhD positions from 3300 to 900. A massive cut. Furthermore, in essense the will no longer be funding any post-doctorate positions (the research posts after a PhD). Any research grants they give will have an upper limit to spending and obviously will be scrutinized to the penny.

What concerns me most however, aside from the obvious lack of jobs, is that no money shall be awarded for the ongoing costs towards any machinery.

Consider that they are the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council yet they are not willing to fund any machinery. Now Chemistry, Physics and Engineering departments have a lot of big machinery which requires a certain amount of ongoing upkeep.

For example, in my lab alone we have a super-conducting magnet (read: big magnet, about a 1000x better than the Earth’s magnetic field, enough to wipe hard drives and credit cards from 5m). Now these magnets need to be kept at -269 °C to continue to work, in short to keep them cold and operation we keep them inside a liquid helium tank. A tank of 300 litres or in money terms that’s about £3000. But even in a purpose built, very large, Thermos flask some of the helium is going to boil off. So every fortnight we need to put in another 60 litres (~£500). And before you ask, “cant you just turn it off?”, well yes you can… ish… it’ll cost you about £40k and take about 6 weeks.


Now even in a modestly small university such as UEA, I know of at least 6 superconducting magnets. Now if we start to include other big machinery such as mass spectrometery or x-ray crystallography, you start to realise that there is a lot of money already invested in ongoing research that cant just be turned off over-night.

However, the main source of money into the department is now refusing to allow funds for such costs. Which means that a lot of departments and research institutes are now asking themselves some very tough funding questions.

The EPRSC’s solution to this problem is to share and share a-like. They give the case of St Andrew’s and Edinburgh Universities’ Chemistry departments as an example. With these two institutes they have effectively half closed, with one keeping one half of the equipment and the other keeping the other half of equipment.

The EPRSC says that this is a good way to “foster new collaborations”. And I suppose that is true to an extent as you will always be reliant on someone at another site running your experiments for you. But in reality, it adds more detachment, more delays and a drop in the quality of the science. Imagine if the office you work in has the ability to print, but for cost saving measures the printer is actually in the German office, and once a day you have a courier term up with all of yesterday’s printing. I cannot believe that this arrangement benefits anyone except the local courier, whom I imagine is seeing a vast increase in the amount of traffic along the 50 miles along the A92.

Furthermore, the problem is going to suddenly and drastically get tragically worse. You see, when Labour came to power, they realised that science is one of the very few things that we Brits are still good at, world leading even, and actually brings in money to the country. With this in mind when they came into power they gave created a one-off £6bn fund for the university Chemistry, Physics and Engineering departments around the country to explicitly buy big equipment with.

![900 MHz NMR Spectrometer]( - Birmingham’s NMR magnet)

The problem with any machinery, especially heavily used machinery, is that at best you can expect a 10 to 15 year shelf-life before things begin to brake. I mean you wouldnt drive 500 miles a day, every day for 10 years in a car without expecting to have to fork out for a new engine. 1997 now lies some time into the window in which we can expect a lot of big equipment across the country to start getting very expensive. Just at a time when the funding source has forbade such spending.

So, I now find myself in an interesting position. I am fast becoming an expert in a field which is expensive to run and operate at a time when the world is cutting back on everything. I love science, I love everything that it can and everything that it will be. I love that I carry a smartphone in my pocket that only 10 years ago would have required a wheelbarrow to fit as much technology into. I love the feeling that ultimately my research will help people, improve lives. I never used to care about the long hours or the knowledge that I’d never be paid amazing well. But at the same time, I need to live, and I need food in my belly.

I find myself in an impossible situation. Do I leave science, for a much “safer” career in a field that pays significantly better for less hours. Do I take a career that can offer me more than 6 month to a year contracts at a time?

If I stay in science, I can say with almost certainty that I could not stay in the UK. I always knew that a stint in Germany was probably required, and I sort of looked forward to it. But having recently talked to a number of Germans, all of them are getting out of Germany as fast as possible, apparently it’s worse there than here, they’re all trying to go to America.

But I do not want to work in America. In America, there are no labour laws. It is expected that you work 12 hours a day (minimum), 7 days a week. With 2 weeks a year leave, which you shouldnt really be taking. The country where I know of people being fired after 6 days because their progress was not satisfactory.

So where does that leave? Australia? India? China?

Australia speaks English and is still funding science, but hard to immigrate to.

India speaks a bit of English, is heavily investing in science to bring themselves up from a second world country to a science powerhouse.

China speaks no English, really would be a culture shock, but all the big chemical and pharmaceutical companies do all of their manufacturing out there.

The problems with India and China is that a move there is likely one way. Whilst the wage there would be very good in comparison to the local market it would still be less than my European counterparts. Which means that every month that I spend out there I am like-for-like poorer, making a move back to a mortgage near impossible without significant help.

So there’s the options. Over-qualified for menial jobs. Unemployable in Europe. Slave labour in America. The developing world. Or a career change.

Answers on the back of a postcard or stuck down envelope.