Mass exodus of research graduates would provide a depressing counterpoint to our ambitions to develop a knowledge economy


SCIENCE:RESEARCHERS ARE warning of an approaching “perfect storm”, one that will wipe out an invaluable natural resource.

Conditions are nearly right for a significant exodus of postdoctoral research fellows, driven into emigration by harsh economic winds, given the lack of secure jobs and the potential for career development abroad. If a major flight of postdocs does take place, their departure would provide a depressing counterpoint to our ambitions to develop a knowledge economy.

Postdocs are the lifeblood of the research sector. Good ideas from principal investigators win the research awards, but once the work begins, the postdocs start to carry a disproportionate share of the load.

It hones their skills as recent PhD graduates and gives them the experience to make important new discoveries in conjunction with their supervisors. Effectively, they become experts in their fields by the time a multi-year research contract runs out, which means the academic research system here should strive to keep them in place and plugged into research. This, however, is when the system starts to run against them.

Most research grants last for two or three years, and at best not more than five. During this time, the postdoc works on short-term contract, with the job viable while the grant money lasts. Once it runs out, either the research fellow must find another research team to join or will have to start making hard decisions about where their research career is going to take them.

The options were better a few years ago, when national research expenditure was on a strongly upwards trajectory and there were plenty of new opportunities. This was also a time when industry could absorb as many PhD graduates – particularly those with research experience – as the third-level sector could produce. Such was the pressure for more doctoral-level graduates that the then government, the Higher Education Authority and the universities joined in an effort to double the number of PhDs graduating in Ireland.

Things are different now. State research expenditure has flattened and, given rising costs, will begin to decline slowly over the next few years.

The weak economy also means that industry – bar a few shining exceptions including ICT and the life-sciences sector – is not capable of absorbing the throughput of PhD graduates. Ironically, on paper at least, the policy to double PhD output remains in place. And yet the universities and institutes are being told to freeze or reduce staff numbers, with very few appointments coming through the system to take up any slack.

The Irish Research Staff Association, which represents researchers in the field, believes that the situation for experienced postdoc researchers has now reached “crisis” point. Anecdotally the flight of this latest generation of scientific wild geese is already underway.

A fall-off in postdoc research fellowships is encouraging more to look abroad when considering career advancement. And this is despite the sterling work being done by the research councils and also main funders such as Science Foundation Ireland in support of excellent research. The high throughput of PhD graduates has built up a stockpile that cannot be absorbed, something that raises questions about the wisdom of having pursued the graduate doubling policy in the first place.

In the 1990s, Irish research supported a few hundred postdocs. Now there are between 3,000 and 4,000 in place and doing productive work. If opportunities go into decline, more new graduates but also the important experienced research fellows will have to look abroad to continue their research careers. Such a flight would also undermine ongoing efforts to attract more principal investigators and also non-Irish research fellows into the system here. Unfortunately, a decision to leave “for a time” can become a career choice that will keep these people permanently abroad.

There are ways to counter the perfect storm. One involves allowing experienced postdocs to apply directly for EU research council and Framework Programme 7 funding under their own names. Only some universities allow this, but it means funds would be available to keep the postdoc in place and at no cost to the State.

Another no-cost idea is to allow postdocs get full credit for other work that they do alongside research. This includes teaching, giving tutorials and assisting principal investigators in writing up research funding applications. Together these could be included on a CV to demonstrate career development. Low-cost ideas might include small levels of “bridging” support used to keep a postdoc ticking over while applying for EU support, or an industry mentoring scheme, using moderate levels of funding to help stake out a job.

There are other possibilities, but action must come quickly or we will see a repeat of the 1980s when thousands of our top research graduates upped sticks and made a new life abroad. We can ill afford to squander this valuable resource.