Too many bright young scientists abandon research because of slow and uncertain career progression, and high-risk research can be neglected in favour of a safe bet when professional progress hinges on continuous publishing.
How can we better design career pathways in science?
The UK must attract and retain the brightest, most creative scientific minds. To do this, significant changes are necessary to generate environments and structures that foster innovation; speed up career progression; fix misaligned incentives; and to allow scientists greater freedom in their choice of research questions.
Slow career progression and lack of job security in academia are major contributing factors to the increasing number of researchers leaving the academic sector for industry or other non-academic positions. According to a study by the NIH, in 1980, less than 1% of it’s principal investigators were over the age of 65. Today, PIs over 65 make up around 7% of the total. In 1980, almost 18% of PIs were 36 or under – today this has fallen to around 3%. The demographics and hierarchies of scientific research have been shifting for some time, making a career in academia steadily less attractive for an early career researcher. In the current economic environment and housing market, it's a huge ask for a young person to try their luck at eventually attaining a PI position - sacrificing a large portion of their earning potential for the better part of a decade, with no guarantee that they will see a return on this investment.
Whether or not they succeed in their goal is largely predicated on continuous publishing of papers in high-impact journals, and on metrics such a citations and impact factors. This does not incentivise ambitious, rigorous, replicable science. High-risk novel research is neglected due to the increased potential for failure, and research coalesces around popular, highly-cited nodes where there is ample funding. Furthermore, the effects of funding allocation mainly serve to reinforce the existing hierarchy: funding further accretes to previous winners, and researchers younger than 35 receive less than 5 percent of federal funding. It is difficult for scientists to remain truly objective about their data and its importance when career progression is based not on good science, but on selling a story. Changes in incentive structures and in how we asses a researcher’s work are needed if we are to promote the best talent, and produce high quality replicable research.
To retain the best scientists and foster innovation, research institutes and funding bodies must be structured in such a way as to minimise inefficiency. Academics have been reported to spend over 40 percent of their time managing administrative tasks related to grant funding, while the success rate for grants awarded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health has dropped from 30% in 2003 to 19.1% in 2016 – meaning the proportion of this time spent on unsuccessful applications is increasing. As most researchers are reliant on obtaining grants to secure their jobs, this process is not only inefficient, but it is associated with significant career dissatisfaction. We want to experiment with institutes and fellowships with that allow researchers to spend less time writing grant proposals or completing repetitive standard experiments, and more time thinking about theories, analysing data, reading papers, and collaborating with colleagues.