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.