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We need to bolster the research and technical workforce to reach the 2.4 per cent target

New analysis from the Royal Society suggests the people may not be in place to achieve the government’s target for research and development investment. Athene Donald sets out what needs to change.
This article is more than 3 years old

Athene Donald is professor of experimental physics and Churchill College Master at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of the Royal Society

The government has a stated aspiration of levelling up the different regions of the country, and spending – variously – 2.4 per cent of GDP on research and innovation or £22bn a year by 2024-25, as promised in last spring’s Budget.

The Royal Society has been gathering statistics on the demographics of the UK’s technical and researcher base in order to assess how well equipped we are to take advantage of the promised research increases, along with taking a longitudinal look at the changing composition of the workforce over the recent past.

It is usually reckoned that the increase in spending will be distributed in the proportion of 2:1 for private: public sector. The research workforce spans industry, higher education and the diverse research institutes. To achieve the target, we need a research and technical workforce who can make effective use of this uplift in money and deliver a revived, built-back-better economy. Do we have such a workforce?

In October 2018, UK Research and Innovation chair John Kingman, speaking at the Royal Society on research culture, spelled out how any uplift in spending on R&D would need a comparable uplift in the number of people involved in the research endeavour. He stated, bluntly, “If we want R&D spending as a percentage of GDP to rise by 50 per cent or so to meet 2.4 per cent, we will also need 50 per cent or so more researchers.”

That was more than two years ago. Of course, since then the pandemic has intervened, not to mention Brexit, both of which are having significant and adverse impacts on our workforce and its pipeline.

The technician pipeline

Often overlooked, the role of technicians as a crucial part of the overall ecosystem needs serious consideration. Their role underpinning developments, whether in the research laboratory or as ideas transform into product, is too often undervalued.

The Royal Society has recently signed the Technician Commitment, recognizing the vital role of technicians in driving forward research and innovation. Likewise, Ottoline Leyser, in her role as UKRI’s chief executive, has made clear the importance of the entire ecosystem and not just how research needs its superstars at the top.

As she puts it “this notion of the researcher as a kind of Einstein figure beavering away by themselves in a shiny lab or a dusty library, doing brilliant things” is an “incredibly problematic framing of how research works.”

So, what do the demographics about technicians tell us? Their distribution is, unsurprisingly, uneven across the country. But, given the data, what I find most troubling is that the pipeline of young talent into technical roles fell in 2018-19, compared with the previous few years, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage.

If this trend persists it will not be healthy for the ecosystem and will certainly hinder innovation. It is important that these roles are appropriately highlighted in careers’ advice at schools, and that the training system – for instance as highlighted in the recent white paper on skills – is fit for purpose.

The apprenticeship levy has not necessarily had the desired effect, and the ever-changing landscape of qualifications which could support this pipeline is confusing for both employer and trainee. As has often been said, the Germans do it better in this space of sub-degree and higher technical qualifications at levels four and five.

The promise of a career in UK research

However, equally worrying, are those much more highly qualified researchers, often with PhDs, who fail to find permanent research roles. The demographic data shows what a high percentage of early career researchers are on temporary contracts – and these may fall into technician roles for which they have little appetite. A 2019 Gatsby report on technicians and innovation spelled out how unsatisfactory this is for the individual, and also the lab manager, who trains up a technician who then quits in frustration.

Job insecurity for researchers is a well-known issue, particularly in higher education. But, this population also contains a significant international component which will, in the future, be significantly impacted by Brexit and changing visa regulations.

Association with Horizon Europe looks set to bring the benefits to our researchers, which is immensely positive. The Global Talent Visa – of which the Royal Society is one sponsor – will facilitate international researchers joining teams in the UK, which is much to be welcomed.

Nevertheless, how the country’s changing role on the international scene impacts on the UK’s recruitment from overseas remains to be seen. It remains a source of worry that researchers may no longer feel this is a country they want to move to, particularly for those with families who have to bear the heavy costs associated with bringing several family members here.

This Royal Society report provides a baseline against which we can compare trends in the years ahead, including the most recent higher education data release. We, as a country, need to get this right. We need schoolchildren to see the attractions of entering the research and technical workforce, at whatever level is right for them. That means much better careers’ advice and clearer paths through the maze of possible qualifications for those for whom university may not be the right path.

Better career advice for those who gain PhDs is also important, so that they have a clearer understanding both of the likelihood of permanent positions opening up for them, but also for what else their skills may be so valuable.

We need to ensure the UK continues to be seen as an attractive destination for international researchers. And we need all employers in the research and innovation landscape to feel empowered and encouraged to invest in future developments and individuals, to drive our economy forward across the entire country.

View and download the Royal Society publication here.

2 responses to “We need to bolster the research and technical workforce to reach the 2.4 per cent target

  1. In an attempt to address the chronic shortage of skills in engineering related professions, the government is promoting the uptake of STEM subjects in schools and colleges, by inspiring young people and manoeuvring them into technical disciplines.* But, how is British science, innovation and technology going to attract technically-literate people like graduates, technicians and apprentices into its fold when the real world they go into, later on in their career, will require them to act in an unprofessional manner?

    In a report published during the 2010-2015 Parliament, the Defence Select Committee of the House of Commons accused the government of using creative accounting practices to meet its NATO commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence. What is less well-known about MoD’s use of such underhand tactics is that, it was the first to pioneer application of the wet-finger-in-the-air technique in the designing of military kit – more specifically, the most important aspect of defence equipment – its inherent reliability – which is an indicator of how frequently it will break-down when in service with the User, and therefore its cost of upkeep subsequently, through-life.

    The main reason why MoD’s defence procurement arm in Bristol has failed to build-in desired levels of reliability into diligently engineered products is because defence contractors have been using the thoroughly unprofessional, wet-finger-in-the-air technique of ‘divvying up’ the given MTBF (mean time between failures) figure among lower-level Maintenance Significant Items – instead of employing the best practice method of determining overall system reliability ‘bottom up’ using measured failure rate figures (not predicted or estimated) derived from an up-to-date, Microsoft Access based 4th Line data repository.

    And from whom did Contractors’ people learn this method of quantifying equipment reliability? Why, none other than from the Ministry of Defence!

    To be precise, the famous here-today-gone-tomorrow procurement officials who have been freely applying this wet-finger-in-the-air technique during their short stay at MoD Abbey Wood before migrating to the defence industry in overwhelming numbers via the ‘revolving door’ and infecting it, by continuing to spread this lazy practice – which has, over the years, become regularised and embedded in commercial & engineering processes to such an extent that objective, evidence-based scientific analysis and thinking which has exercised technically-literate people since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, has been suppressed. This disastrous situation has come about because 99% of people who end-up working in the defence industry were previously in the pay of the State – with no sense of what it takes to uphold the values of a true engineering professional.

    To add insult to injury, the Secretary of State for Defence is actively encouraging other private sector employers to hire people who have just come off the public payroll – only for them to spread this unprofessional practice to the rest of the UK’s world-class engineering businesses.

    It should come as no surprise to MoD that all competing bids appear to be fully compliant with the reliability requirement claiming the same level of achievement, a figure slightly higher than that stated in the technical specification – thereby denying Abbey Wood Team Leader the opportunity to discriminate between technical solutions on the basis of inherent reliability.

    So, instead of acting as a responsible great Department of State and instilling professional values in its loyal employees, the Ministry of Defence has ended up doing the exact opposite! It has made a mockery and laughing stock of the engineering profession – as practiced in the UK – especially in the eyes of European competitor nations, the United States and potential export governments in the Arabian Gulf region, the wider Middle East, North Africa, Latin America and emerging nations in the Asia-Pacific region – where the engineering profession is still regarded in high esteem, and remains an automatic career choice for many young people.

    * Industrial Strategy – Building a Britain fit for the future, HM Government white paper published by Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy department, November 2017 with Foreword from the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, p.107

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