Science graduates emerge into Ireland of little security

It is no surprise that there is a slow, steady stream of young but experienced research scientists who end up leaving for the UK and US, where the notion of maintaining a career is not off the menu

The release of Leaving results two weeks ago showed increased numbers of students sitting physics, biology, chemistry and higher maths

The release of Leaving results two weeks ago showed increased numbers of students sitting physics, biology, chemistry and higher maths

Mon, Aug 25, 2014, 01:00

The message is getting through to students and their parents – it is a good idea to consider studying physics, biology, chemistry and higher maths at second level to facilitate a jump into third-level studies in the sciences. The release of Leaving results two weeks ago by the State Examinations Commission showed increased numbers of students sitting these subjects and the follow-through was also to be seen in the Central Applications Office first round offers. The points required for entry to the sciences and maths were up and are significantly higher than they were back in 2010 when you could get into the sciences at University College Dublin or Trinity College Dublin with a Leaving result in the mid-400s. Now the points demand is in the low 500s.

Education commentators including this paper’s education correspondent, Joe Humphreys, put the steady rise down to the bonus points on offer for those students who sit and pass higher maths, even if they scrape through with a D grade. This extra 25 points is being used to leverage places in courses that are seeing growing demand, hence growing points requirements for science courses along with engineering and agricultural science. Clearly something is pushing this demand and the most likely cause is sustained encouragement from the Government telling people – parents in particular – that there are good, high-paying jobs available for those working in the sciences and maths.

It doesn’t hurt this argument that Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton and Minister of State in the department Damien English (previously Seán Sherlock) make almost daily announcements of new jobs coming up in the technology sector. They also regularly talk about fresh investments in scientific research which opens the doors for PhD and postdoctoral researchers to take up opportunities using a combination of State, European Union and private- enterprise money in pursuit of some research goal.


But are the parents and their offspring being deceived? Is it really true that there are thousands of jobs going a-begging as we are told because there aren’t enough specialists, particularly in the IT area, available to take up well-paid posts? There is a certain amount of exaggeration going on and things aren’t really as straightforward as they might seem.

There have been about a dozen phone calls to this office in recent months from parents looking for advice on why their science grad daughter or son can’t seem to find a job here. These clearly won’t be a representative sample, and may not be a reflection of what is actually going on. The Higher Education Authority’s reports on the first destinations for graduates usually show consistently high job or higher education placements for those holding science, technology and maths degrees. Those with degrees in these subjects also are trained to be good problem-solvers and so are ideal people to sign up as managers in any discipline. They generally have good numeracy, logical thinking and evidence-based decision-making skills that fit in any kind of business.

There is something very important missing in this rosy picture, however, and that relates to continuity and career prospects. Students are sold the idea that they can pursue a career in the sciences but given the way that research happens here the great majority of any research posts on offer are going to be in the universities and institutes. There is currently a ban on recruitment in this sector so jobs are really scarce.

Many PhDs and postdocs do manage to get picked up, however, on short-term contracts of two to five years, positions that are 100 per cent dependent on the availability of research funding. The job lasts as long as the research money holds out and when this goes the project – and the employment – come to an end.

The largest research funder, Science Foundation Ireland, keeps thousands of researchers in work through its grants, but its €150 million annual budget has remained static for several years, which means less to spend on short-term contracts.

Similar budgetary restrictions hold for other funders such as the Irish Research Council, Health Research Board and Teagasc. The foundation tries to spread its money farther by demanding that higher education and companies link up to do research, with the companies required to put up hard cash, but even with a contribution from other sources, such as the EU’s Horizon 2020 money, funding can dry up.

This makes it more difficult for a researcher to hop from the end of one research gig to the beginning of another to enable a postdoc to keep a young family going. It is no surprise then that there is a slow, steady stream of young but experienced research scientists who end up leaving for the UK and United States to take up more reliable research posts abroad, ones where the notion of maintaining a career is not off the menu. One can only hope then that by the time the current crop of higher education first years gets through its science, engineering and maths degrees that we will have found a way around this career breaker and ensure we can keep these talented people productive and at home.

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