Sci­en­tists wanted

THE (Times Higher Education) - - LETTERS -

In “Good luck, you’re go­ing to need it”, her re­view of The Ef­fec­tive Sci­en­tist by Corey Brad­shaw (3 May), Jen­nifer Rohn be­gins by paint­ing a “bleak” pic­ture of the prospects of a young sci­en­tist’s gain­ing a fac­ulty po­si­tion, sup­port­ing the claim with gloomy sta­tis­tics (just 0.45 per cent of PhDs in sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics be­come pro­fes­sors in the UK).

In re­al­ity, the num­ber of fac­ulty po­si­tions, and of per­sonal chairs, in STEM is far higher now than it was even in the “golden age” of the 1960s uni­ver­sity ex­pan­sion. In that era, the life chances of a vast pro­por­tion of the UK’s young peo­ple were re­stricted very early: at 11-plus, at en­try to A lev­els, at se­lec­tion for a num­ber of uni­ver­sity places less than a 10th of the cur­rent num­ber, and at se­lec­tion for PhD schol­ar­ships that were few and far be­tween. For those very few who reached the PhD stage, com­pe­ti­tion for fac­ulty po­si­tions seemed low, but only be­cause most of it had al­ready hap­pened. To­day, higher ed­u­ca­tion, even at PhD level, is ac­ces­si­ble to many more peo­ple. This should surely be a cause for celebration rather than gloom.

Giv­ing our bright­est young aca­dem­i­cally in­clined sci­en­tists a false mes­sage that there is little hope of their ob­tain­ing a fac­ulty po­si­tion does them a great dis­ser­vice: the truth is that the truly cre­ative peo­ple who would have gained such po­si­tions in the past are still sought – ag­gres­sively – by world-class uni­ver­si­ties. One of the plea­sures of my grey­ing years is watch­ing the PhD and post­doc­toral alumni of my lab gain­ing aca­demic po­si­tions of their own: I hope that, in men­tor­ing their own stu­dents, they dis­pel the com­mon but false mes­sage that sci­en­tific cre­ativ­ity and lead­er­ship are no longer re­warded.

Jamie Davies

Uni­ver­sity of Ed­in­burgh

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