At August 20th’s SoNYC discussion, which this month is held in collaboration with the New York Academy of Sciences, we’re going to be focusing on science PhDs. Does the current PhD system need revamping to better equip researchers to continue in academia or to pursue other careers after graduating? In our latest series of guest posts on Soapbox Science, we’ll hear from a variety of contributors about how the current system works, where the gaps are, which additional skills they think PhD courses should incorporate and what their personal experiences have been. Follow and join in the conversations online using #PhDelta and share your thoughts in the comment threads on the blog posts too.
Rich Walker is a Science Executive at the Royal Society of Chemistry. He graduated from the University in Oxford in 2007, only to return to study for a DPhil in Physical and Theoretical Chemistry investigating the behaviour of novel, mid-infrared lasers with applications in atmospheric monitoring and medical sensing. Since graduating in 2011, his work at the RSC has involved education and science policy roles, the latter of which is now his main concern. He can be found on twitter as @ivelostmysock or during the day contributing to @RSC_Roadmap.
Before 2000 Research Council-funded PhDs in the UK came in two main flavours: studentships were either given directly to a researcher for a specific project (by far the major route), or to a department for distribution to researchers as it saw fit. In the mid 2000s, however, the primary funder of physical sciences in the UK – the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) – began experimenting with a new model of studentship: Doctoral Training Centres (DTCs). Initially trialled on the life-science interface, DTCs brought a drastically different approach to the PhD experience. Where previous studentships had been free and easy, those funded through this new scheme were far more regimented. 10 or more students were tied together into a year group or ‘cohort’, and went through a year of taught courses and soft skills training before embarking on a more traditional research-based PhD for the following three years.
The first group of DTCs performed rather well, and over time more universities began bidding to host one. The high quality of training, and power to bring people together across disciplines, were widely recognised and many involved in running them became rather evangelical. All this sounds great – so why are DTCs a contentious issue in the UK?
The sticking point came with EPSRC’s 2011 reorganisation. This was controversial in many ways, with one of the largest being the now famous Shaping Capability – a funding reallocation strategy that spurred a small group of scientists to proclaim the ‘Death of Science’ in London a few months ago.
A slightly less prominent decision at the time, though no less severe, was the termination of support for project studentships, with their funding transferring to DTCs. While project studentships had previously enabled any researcher anywhere the freedom to have students, flexible grants were now only available in much smaller number, through university departments.
It quickly became apparent the national structure that remained lacked a coherent strategy. As DTCs support only a specific set of research areas and supply only nearby universities, the result is a series of strongly-focused areas of well-supported research with little or no provision outside. This has left some topics supported in only one area, and certain universities with support for only one subject. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Wales, a country which is investing heavily in science infrastructure, with eight research-active universities, but no EPSRC DTCs.
A further consideration here is the expense. At a time when research budgets are squeezed, it’s a bold decision to switch studentships to a method which is 60 per cent more expensive than its alternatives. EPSRC does in turn provide funding to make up some this shortfall, but the host university still needs to find the rest through departmental money and staff time – essentially forcing cuts to other areas.
The effect of this changeover has been swift and wide-ranging. Research groups that once were receiving one or two PhDs a year are now faced with the prospect of just one or two every four-year cycle. As PhDs perform much of the actual bench work, it seems inevitable that we’re facing a significant decrease in UK research volume.
Late last year the House of Lords Science & Technology Select Committee opened its inquiry into Higher Education in STEM subjects, soliciting universities, research councils and learned societies for their views on, among other things, post-doctoral training.
Learned societies like the Royal Society of Chemistry, Society of Biology and Institute of Physics all responded to this issue, raising many of the issues above. They were pleased to hear a great deal of them echoed in the report published by the Lords. In particular, the Lords were concerned with the inflexibility of DTCs as a barrier to providing studentships to “small-scale projects which often lead to research breakthroughs”. They also noted the importance of maintaining diversity, recommending that research councils “preserve a variety of PhD delivery models to ensure that the UK’s current breadth of expertise in science is maintained”.
EPSRC have repeatedly stated their commitment to their doctoral training strategy, and earlier this year published highlights of their mid-term review of their DTCs, noting that the majority have made “good progress or better”. What this review didn’t cover though, was the performance of the studentship network at large, and this is being undertaken in the upcoming ‘2013 exercise’: a review investigating skills gaps in the UK doctoral network, and specifically gaps that can be filled using a DTC-type approach.
So what now?
Doctoral Training Centres can be fantastic: putting more money into studentships, building cohorts, and ensuring adequate soft skills training benefits not only the students but also their research. It is important that PhDs are not just slaves to the bench, and that’s not a fact that we’re always good at recognising. But DTCs are not the only solution; Vitae for instance has also been doing excellent work in this area.
The problem with DTCs is that the result can only be increased research concentration. Russell Group universities are great at some things, but it makes no more sense to focus all our research in these ‘top tier’ institutions than it does to restrict it to a very select range of topics decided in advance on a two-year cycle. Right now, the UK punches well above its academic weight. But, to stay that way, we’ll need to maintain our strength over a broad range of fields and to ensure that we have the agility to fund research when there’s a sudden breakthrough.
I don’t want to give the idea that I view the pre-DTC UK with rose-tinted spectacles, there are certainly ways in which we’ve moved on. What I can’t help thinking though is that maybe just a half-step back and we’d be in a much better place.