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The Black Hole

Scientific research needs scientists to undertake research – who knew?

How do we continue to meet the laboratory research needs if we pull skilled people out of the research stream?


The Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars Facebook group pointed me in the direction of a large survey conducted in Germany (PDF) across their research workforce. Around 1,700 researchers were asked their opinions on the state of science employment conditions at German research institutes and universities after a shocking 25,000 strong petition demanding improvements sent shock waves through the community. The result – just as in many other countries – German researchers are frustrated by the lack of long term positions available at their research institutions. Fixed-term contracts represent up to 80 percent of the workforce and it appears that becoming a professor is one of few safe options. A common refrain on our blog has been to hire scientists to undertake research in the form of permanent staff scientist positions, but these positions remain quite rare in the academic setting.

Many will argue that there are too many postdoctoral researchers, too many life scientists and the simplest solution to funding rates is to limit the training. While I think this is short-sighted for numerous reasons previously outlined, this article is about the realities of 21st century scientific research – there is a huge requirement for highly trained researchers to carry out physical experiments and not simply dream them up.

For those that are not familiar with the structure in the life sciences, it is very different from the social sciences and humanities – the group leader will typically design (and find funding for) the general topic of research and the general approaches that will be taken, but the PhD students and postdoctoral fellows carry out the experiments and often drive the follow-up experiments – they are supported by research technicians and support staff in larger research institutes. For example, sequencing the genome of a patient sample requires a clinician or nurse to take the sample, a research technician to do sample processing, a biologist to isolate the correct cell fraction and DNA from those cells, another technician to sequence the genome on a highly specialised machine, a computational biologist to align the sequencing to the reference human genome and a team of statisticians and biologists to identify the interesting or novel features of that person’s genome. Typically, the only people with long-term contracts are the clinical staff and the person who thought up the sentence “we will sequence patient genomes for patient specific mutations.”

The realities are that there is a massive demand for the research to get done and people with PhDs can do it – we just need to find a better way to handle, define, and support this class of workers. Some things that underpin the growth of the sector are:

  1. More research is being conducted
  2. Growth in PhD training is not being met by creation of new professor position
  3. There are very limited non-professorial career options for PhD-trained scientists who wish to continue doing research at academic institutions.

At the end of the day, more research requires more researchers. The biomedical field is one of the best funded and the public wants to have more treatments, cures, drugs, etc. The reason the postdoctoral fellow pool is growing so fast is that these scientists are required in order to undertake the research.  The current system has people in their late 20s and 30s performing postdoctoral research for a temporary contractual period that either culminates in a group leader position (e.g., tenure-track) or, in the majority of cases, an exhausted not-so-young-anymore scientist exploring “alternative career options.” My question for the system – how do we continue to meet the laboratory research needs if we pull skilled people out of the research stream?

The answer in my mind and the point of this blog entry is to encourage central funding for staff researchers – employ people as members of the department or research institute and assign them to work with groups on particular projects that suit their expertise.  We have managed to create permanent positions for grant facilitators, secretaries, project managers, human resources managers, accountants, etc., as essential components of the research enterprise… why not scientists?

Create respectable, well-compensated positions for PhDs who enjoy bench work and the academic lab environment, but are simply not going to – nor do they want to – run their own lab. For those pursuing the group leader status it should be explicit that the position is a purposeful temporary training experience: re-tooling, gaining research independence with the intention to move on to start their own group. If you want hands to drive projects that fall outside of a research technician’s role – hire a PhD level scientist, pay them well, keep them happy, and watch the benefits roll in.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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