From a potential ban on neonicotinoids to the importance of the EU, there were some provocative questions at last week’s Voice of the Future. There were many times when I had my preconceptions challenged by the MPs’ answers, and many issues I hadn’t stopped to consider. This Storify (below) sums up the debate brilliantly, and you can watch the entire event here, but I’ve taken the opportunity to share some of my thoughts, and look forward to your comments.
Unsurprisingly, a major issue raised by young people was the career structure in academic science. Unlike most commercial settings, aspiring academics must do multiple short-term contracts after which many will never get permanent jobs in research.
Universities and Science Minister David Willetts MP was keen to explain that there are reasons for the high number of PhD students relative to senior staff, including that the structure shouldn’t be too top heavy (though he didn’t explain why academia should be different to other careers). Perhaps we need to stop thinking of PhDs as a route into academia, but as training for a range of careers?
Whatever the reasons, the result is a career structure that’s extremely challenging for everyone. But there was specific debate about women in academia, with Andrew Miller MP describing the issue as ‘morally and economically’ important.
The Twitter conversation, however, suggested that the real problems hadn’t been tackled. The value of role models, especially for girls at school, was raised repeatedly. Whilst this is extremely important, it isn’t addressing the issue that the fall-out is mainly later on. Women are well represented at undergraduate and post-graduate levels, but very few make it to Professor.
Shabana Mahmood MP, shadow minister for Universities and Science, spoke about ways of making it easier for women with families, without questioning the assumption that this was a factor for women not men.
I sent a tweet asking what are the real reasons women are leaving science, and got some interesting responses:
If anyone has any research on this topic I’d be really interested to see it, or are there any solutions the MPs missed out? I’m sure the academic career structure risks putting off very talented men as well as women, and we should work to make the system as effective as possible for science and scientists.