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Saturday, 26 August, 2000, 00:18 GMT 01:18 UK
UK science 'facing salary crisis'
Scientist working in laboratory
Crisis warning: Researchers want higher salaries
The standard of UK science is on the verge of a crisis because of the poor salaries offered to researchers, according to a science pressure group.

The Save British Science society (SBS) has published a survey which suggests universities are struggling to attract high quality employees.

Figures indicate that more than a third of higher education institutions have been forced to appoint staff who would not previously been considered good enough in order to fill vacant posts.

And more than half have jobs left unfilled because they cannot find any suitable candidates.

scientist carrying out tests
Recruiting and retaining researchers is difficult
SBS director, Dr Peter Cotgreave, says the government urgently needs to channels more money directly into funding academic salaries.

For the survey, a questionnaire was sent to all 90 members of the UK Deans of Science Committee, seeking views about the ease or difficulty of appointing high quality researchers.

Of the 30 who replied, 37% said they had had no choice but to appoint graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and lecturers who would not have been considered good enough in the past. 57% had been left with empty posts.

"This just goes to show that recruitment and retention is a real problem for British universities. Almost everyone is finding it harder to get good staff," Dr Cotgreave said.

Budget boost

Last month, the UK Chancellor, Gordon Brown, announced in his comprehensive spending review that the science budget would be raised by 5.4% per year in real terms.

This was in addition to a 1bn joint capital investment package announced two weeks previously with the Wellcome Trust research charity.

Taken together, Mr Brown said, it meant science spending would increase by an average of 7% a year for three years.

Just a few weeks ago, a 4m drive was launched to reverse the "brain drain" of scientists leaving Britain, and to persuade the "stars" of science to stay.

Under the scheme, the salaries of 50 selected science academics could be topped up to around 100,000 a year.

The Royal Society-backed initiative will be funded jointly by the Department of Trade and Industry and the Wolfson Foundation research charity, which are both contributing 2m.

'Spiral of decline'

SBS has welcomed these funding boosts, but maintains that the issue of poor pay for the vast majority of university researchers has yet to be tackled.

Dr Cotgreave said: "It's ludicrous that a new lecturer, with at least six years of university training, earns 16,000, when he or she has huge student debts. These people can earn much, much more elsewhere."

He cited as an example the recent news that management consultants Andersen is offering each new recruit in this year's graduate intake a 10,000 bonus, on top of the 28,000 starting salary, to enable them to pay off their student debts.

"If we can't attract the best people now, in 20 years time there won't be top quality people to run the labs.

"It's a spiral of decline. If the people in the labs are no good, science will be no good - there won't be the cutting edge teaching training people going into industry, and we won't have the world class science that we have to have."

Ring-fenced cash

Dr Cotgreave said research had shown that academic salaries were about 30% too low.

"No one expecting everyone to get 30% pay rises immediately, but people could be getting substantial 10% pay rises."

He said it was the place of the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE), which was ultimately responsible for higher education funding, to address the situation.

"What the DfEE doesn't understand is that it is responsible for the bulk of the science base, the new ideas which will create the new economy," he said.

A DfEE spokeswoman said half of the 100m allocated to higher education in last month's spending review had been ring-fenced for preventing the "brain drain" of academics from universities.

Universities could spend this money on salaries as they wished, she said.

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