Review of the supply of scientists and engineers

Review of the supply of scientists and engineers

Review of the supply of scientists and engineers

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to Sir Gareth Roberts’ review of the supply of scientists and engineers. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled by the General Secretary with the assistance of a number of Fellows with wide experience of the school, university and industry sectors.

In recent years, Scotland has been successful in attracting inward investment from high-tech companies. This has been achieved through a combination of Government initiatives creating attractive investment packages, the strategic position of Scotland as a staging post between the markets of North America and the European continent, the fact that English (the language of technology) is spoken as a first language and the tradition of a highly skilled and well-educated work force. There has, however, been a steady but measurable drift from science and mathematics to other subjects in schools in Scotland and across Europe. This has coincided with a period when the numbers and the skills level requirements of our workforce in the technical areas have been increasing. There have been many initiatives from Government, Professional Institutions (such as Scottish Engineering) and Learned Societies (such as the Royal Society of Edinburgh) which have attempted to redress this problem within Scotland, but the evidence is that the problem continues.

The specific questions identified in the consultation paper are addressed below:

A. Skills and skills dialogue

1. Skills needs

What skills are most important for scientists and engineers in R&D?
The concept of R&D in academia, large industry and in small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) differs considerably and the needs of each can be significantly different. Clearly there is a spectrum of activity but the needs of each group should be considered.
In general, factors that are important for scientists and engineers in research include a good grounding in fundamental mathematical/scientific/technical knowledge and skills that will stand them in good stead as their careers develop and as their field itself develops (particularly in technological fields which are changing rapidly), together with analytical thinking and an enquiring and questioning mind. The former is provided in educational terms and the latter can be developed through case studies and well-directed project work at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.

Specific scientific, technical, managerial and business skills will be particularly valued by SME’s who will want individuals to be able to operate independently from the start. Large industrial firms, however, will be able to take those with more general ability and train them in specific skills through continual professional development (CPD).

What skills is a researcher expected to have, and how can they be acquired?
As noted above, the skills that a researcher will be expected to have working in academia will differ from those of a researcher working in SMEs or large industry.

Researchers are now expected to have the high quality/limited breadth skills associated with their specific research project/training but also require: (a) more generic scientific/research skills (e.g. numeracy, experimental design, project management), (b) team working and leadership skills, which they will apply to their research and (c) written and oral communication skills, at technical and non-technical levels. The need for information and communications technology skills is also an underlying requirement and the ability in a second language is of increasing importance.

The more generic of these skills should be obtained as part of both undergraduate and postgraduate education. It should be noted, however, that technical skills have to be developed by constant use and practice and most University courses are heavily weighted towards knowledge and understanding and not to repetitive skills development.

Specific management skills can be delivered either at undergraduate or postgraduate level through work experience, by alternative training in the form of CPD, or such mechanisms as Integrated Graduate Development Schemes.

What skills do scientists have that are valued by other (non-research) employers?
The skills most valued by non-research employers are likely to include analytical/problem-solving skills that come from the complete study of a scientific discipline to at least first-degree level, together with numeracy and computing/IT knowledge.

Do the skills required by academic researchers and business R&D researchers vary and if so how?
The generic scientific/technical skills required by academic and business R&D researchers are not significantly different. However, the constraints under which the different groups work are often dissimilar in important ways (e.g. time-scales). In business, the economic forces that require profits, returns on equity and ability to attract investment capital need to be understood before rather than after the graduate moves into first employment. This could put a greater value on management/business skills in business R&D, especially in SMEs.

How do businesses build on the skills that scientists and engineers arrive with as newly employed (post) graduates?
Learning from others is the main way that researchers learn in industry to add subject/company specific skills as needed. Employees in SMEs have few if any peers and usually learn on the job and have limited opportunities to continue their development. Larger companies, however, can often afford to send new postgraduates on courses or deploy them on a number of short-term jobs within the industry to gain wider experience. Many large companies have also established their own ‘universities’ in order to validate career progress.

2. Communication mechanisms

Who should be the partners in the skills dialogue?
The importance of dialogue between employers and providers is well recognised and occurs at all levels from Government bodies to individual university departments and research groups interacting with industry and business. It should be remembered, however, that higher education institutions (HEIs) educate their graduates. They do not train them to work in one industry sector and certainly not for one specific company.

There are, nevertheless, important roles for Learned Societies, Professional Institutions and Research Councils in the definition of the structure and content of undergraduate and postgraduate science and engineering education. The involvement of the Professional Engineering Institutions, however, can lead to compartmentalisation of engineering disciplines and there might be significant advantages to both graduates and employers if boundaries between the engineering disciplines were more blurred, producing graduates with a wider range of skills.

How effective are existing mechanisms for skills dialogue?
Skills dialogue varies widely. Many academic institutions run special postgraduate courses to widen experience of students outside their subject area and there are activities/initiatives proceeding at research group level through to sector wide level. Many postgraduates also interact with industry because of the nature of their award (e.g. in Teaching Company Schemes and CASE awards).

There are, however, a number of challenges in developing HEI education and training for industrial researchers in what are identified as priority areas. As there is no general structure for interaction between employers and providers, SMEs appear to have a particularly ineffectual relationship with HEIs or the higher education sector as a whole. With 4-year degree courses, there can also be long lead times before HEIs produce the graduates with the required skills. Planning timescales within industry, however, are usually over a 1-3 year period. These factors make it difficult for HEIs to respond to perceived skills needs and shortages by, for example, new undergraduate courses.

Given that many trained scientists take jobs which do not use their detailed scientific knowledge, how much influence should 'non-scientific' employers of scientists have on the skills dialogue?
Non-scientific employers of scientists should have a peripheral influence on the skills dialogue, for example in the development of management, interpersonal and business skills.

3. Planning horizons

Are the timescales on which business assesses its future skills needs consistent with the time taken for universities to produce people with those skills?
Short term changes in skills requirements are unlikely to be satisfied fully unless they build upon a broad foundation of knowledge and skills appropriate to the field. The HEIs should be providing basic skills, which will provide the foundation for a career, upon which specialist skills can be added without too much difficulty at any stage.

Although the increase in the amount of formal training provided for postgraduate research students makes it easier to respond at that level, one of the problems is that different sections of industry have significantly different specialist skills needs. General postgraduate training programmes can seldom satisfy these different (and often conflicting) demands.

B. Recruitment and retention of scientists and engineers

Why do people choose the careers they do?
Students usually choose their courses on the basis of their school experiences. They can often be influenced by good teachers in particular subjects and if they do well in these subjects in examinations. Peer and parental pressure can also be a factor. The nature of their degree then determines to some extent their career choice, especially in medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine and engineering. Many graduates, however, have no clear view and choose careers simply by chance and circumstances, often because a job is available. One of the issues at this stage is that in most business organisations the opportunities to pursue a career in research are very limited. In addition, employees who are successful in research are also often moved out of the research role at a relatively early age into management functions.

The key issue in recruitment is that at present not enough able students are being attracted into the physical sciences, mathematics and engineering. The problem has its origins in attitudes established at a very early age and is now being encountered in many other parts of the world where, in the relatively recent past, there were no difficulties of recruitment to science and engineering (e.g. Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, Scandinavia, Australia). Personal attitudes, many ultimately based on society attitudes, to particular research sectors and the perceived stimulation of the job can be important drivers in job selection.

In addition, the initial salaries and subsequent prospects for scientists and engineers in research appear much less favourable than for certain other career options open to graduates. For example, a significant number of high-achieving mathematicians, scientists and engineers choose to pursue careers in accountancy, finance and management. This is becoming more important as an increasing number of graduates will have significant debts.

Which are the most important factors in researchers' and potential researchers' career choices?
Large numbers of contract researchers are looking to become lecturers or professional researchers but only about 7-10% do so. The large increase in grants available, especially for the medical and life sciences, has led to a huge pool of contract researchers, most of whom are forced sooner or later to change career track into other occupations. A succession of postdoctoral contracts, however, does not always help researchers make a move into industry.

Is the overall pattern of careers adopted by scientists and engineers a problem for businesses' R&D activities?
Industry has a huge choice of contract researchers to choose from in the medical/biological/chemical disciplines but this is not so in engineering and computing. Engineering in the UK attracts insufficient high quality undergraduates (unlike medicine) and as a result there are too few high quality graduates in this area. Job opportunities for engineering graduates abound in industry, especially in the oil and gas industry, with the shortfall in engineering graduates being filled by graduates from overseas. Few engineering graduates, therefore, continue into postgraduate and postdoctoral research at university. In general, the engineering industry does not reward the PhD with an enhanced salary until very late in a career. As a result, the net present value of a research degree is strongly negative. However, in certain areas, such as computer aided engineering, newly qualified PhDs are actively sought after and can demand significantly better salaries than before their postgraduate training.

To obtain high-class engineers and scientists, the country needs good educators. However, with academics and researchers in the engineering sciences increasingly attracted into industry, there is likely to be a serious shortfall of such scientists and engineers in universities. This could result in HEIs being unable to provide well-qualified researchers in the future.

C. The education system

What factors in the education system affect the supply of researchers who have the skills required for businesses' R&D activities?
Negative attitudes to science and mathematics are often established at a very early age because of the perception that these are "difficult" subjects. Most initiatives, however, have been targeted at pupils of fifteen and above, but by that time the die is often cast and few converts are made. The issues should, therefore, be addressed at a much earlier stage within the schools to reach young people and do as much as possible to counter negative opinion forming processes, specifically aiming at high achievers. However, in order to correct attitudes, skills and expertise among both staff and students within schools, it is important that the staff are addressed first.

Scientists and engineers are being ‘lost’ at primary school level. At the very enquiring primary school age, most boys and girls are taught their first science by non-scientists, very often by people who themselves did not like science at school. There are also more primary teachers sympathetic to biology (such as nature study) than to mechanics. This limitation in the technical/science background of many primary school teachers needs to be addressed. Initiatives in this area, such as that of Teaching Learning Scotland on the 5-14 curriculum on science, are to be applauded. Similarly, the primary school science outreach activities of Glasgow University Science and Technology Outreach, is an example of long-term programmes that could begin to show positive results in 10 to 15 years.

In secondary schools, the teaching of science and engineering subjects is hampered by the quantity and the quality of teachers of mathematics, physics, chemistry and technology and general low morale, which does not lead to enthusiastic and infectious teaching of the type necessary to generate an interest in children. School teaching within the UK is not held in as high esteem as it was in the past and honours-degree graduates can easily find employment elsewhere, often at several times the salary. This has led to difficulties in recruiting and retaining teachers, maintaining commitment and morale, with science and technology subjects probably being the most seriously affected. The situation in Scotland has generally been better than in the rest of the UK and this distinction is likely to be further enhanced by the McCrone Report on the pay and career structure of teachers. There is, however, a lack of modern equipment in the laboratories and a general lack of opportunity for staff to update their skills and retrain.

Within the teacher training colleges, the trainers also suffer from lack of investment in both equipment and staff and an uncertainty about their own future role. In particular, those in teacher training establishments need to be afforded the opportunity of upgrading and updating their skills. This could be done in collaboration with industry and with experts in tertiary education.

The introduction of GCSE Combined Science has resulted in a less challenging preparation in science than is offered by studying physics, chemistry and biology as separate subjects. In Scotland, attempts to teach general science in S1/2, for example, have had mixed success and, as in England, have largely been shunned as too easy by the independent sector. It has also camouflaged the shortage of physics and chemistry teachers and raised difficulties by expecting, for example, a biologist teaching physics and chemistry to inspire pupils in these subjects. Despite efforts to change matters, post-Standard Grade physics and biology have tended to remain the preserve of boys and girls, respectively. Technical subjects and computer studies in various guises have been introduced and have proved more attractive than the traditional sciences, such as physics.

Should more young people in general, or more high achievers in particular, be encouraged to study science and engineering to graduate and postgraduate level, and if so, how?
The UK does not need more students studying science in general to satisfy industry's needs. It needs more high quality students studying quantitative sciences and better graduates with better rapport with their subjects as a preparation for their careers in industry and commerce. The decline in physical sciences and engineering has to be arrested and the UK needs to take a more positive line in encouraging students to study the "hard" sciences and engineering. If the quantity and quality of those admitted to undergraduate degrees in these subjects can be improved, the numbers going on to postgraduate work should increase accordingly. Therefore, steps need to be taken at primary and secondary school level to encourage more students to go on to study these subjects, as noted above, as well as seeking to attract more girls to study such subjects.

In engineering sciences it is now difficult to persuade top graduates to study for a PhD and, consequently, difficult to recruit academic staff from the UK. A primary consideration must be to make a career of teaching and research within the university more attractive and this includes attention to the laboratory and teaching infrastructures, which have declined over the last few years at a worrying rate. Financial considerations are also very important in terms of encouraging graduates to continue at university for postgraduate study. The difference between a Research Council studentship and an industrial starting salary in a high technology company can be very large.

It is probable that unless addressed, shortages in academic/research staff in these areas could lead to less well-educated graduates which industry will find unattractive. Incentives have to be in place to address this. In Northern Ireland there is a select ‘distinction award’ aimed at retaining some of the best students. These awards are split between science and engineering, and the humanities (the ratios favouring science and engineering), and then split between institutions based on graduating class numbers, Research Assessment Exercise results and any embargoes due to poor completion rates. There would be merit, therefore, in a Scottish ‘distinction award’, similar to that in Northern Ireland, to provide material inducements to postgraduate study.

Should more be done by businesses and/or higher education institutions to encourage top science and engineering undergraduates into research, and if so, how?
In some disciplines there are already large numbers of scientists who continue to a higher degree. More should be done in those subjects where there are problems in attracting top graduates to do PhD work. It should be noted, however, that it is unlikely that industry would wish to see the most able engineering graduates, whether at first degree, MSc or PhD level, seeing research as the main area in which they should consider using their talents.

Does research training in a university fit researchers for careers in business and/or in academia?
The quality and content of postgraduate courses have become increasingly complex with one, two, three and four year postgraduate degrees. Increasingly, postgraduate courses recognise the importance of generic, including non-technical generic, content of postgraduate education and training and this has, to some degree, been further reinforced by the demands of the Research Councils.

The importance of innovative research depends on the degree undertaken and it should remain central to the Doctorate, which is at present the highest form of research training. Nevertheless instructional courses are extremely valuable in broadening the background of graduates from what appear to be increasingly specialised undergraduate courses. The roles of business and academe, however, are different and it should be the responsibility of business to encourage the concept of lifelong learning with their employees.

D. Roles and responsibilities

Is the current division of responsibility for training and development of researchers between and within government, business, the education system and the individual a strength or a weakness in ensuring that innovative businesses can recruit and retain scientists and engineers with the relevant skills?
To a large extent this question has been answered earlier in this response. HEIs have the responsibility to educate undergraduate students to a high standard in a subject area. During these courses they develop their computing, presentation, numeracy and writing skills as well as specific subject/laboratory skills.

At postgraduate level they concentrate on a subject area and in addition become highly proficient in laboratory/subject skills. Employers should not think that they are employing the "finished product" at undergraduate level. Industry must be prepared to continue the employees’ education and training (in house, or through CPD) in areas which are essential to the company. All parties, HEIs, employees and employers, have a responsibility in this partnership.

E. International dimensions

What are the factors that lead businesses and universities to recruit from other countries?
Given the multi-national structure of many companies there is globalisation of recruitment. If skilled workers cannot be produced at home, or imported, sites of operation are moved to achieve the matching of tasks and skills.

How do UK employers access the skills of non-UK residents and what are the difficulties faced by employers in doing so?
Many postgraduate programmes now appear to depend on the inflow of high quality overseas graduates, many of whom seek to work in the UK following the completion of their education and training, representing an opportunity for higher education and employers to access their skills.

Have the recent changes to the UK work permit system (aimed at making it easier for UK employers to recruit high skilled workers from abroad, and for overseas students graduating from UK universities to stay and work in the UK), affected employers' recruitment practices and the supply of scientists and engineers in general?
Recent changes in UK work permit regulations appear to have led to enhanced employment opportunities for overseas graduates and are a move in the right direction. However, this pattern of overseas recruitment cannot be seen as the long-term solution to the problem.

What factors affect decisions by scientists and engineers to work in other countries?
Movement of scientists into Universities from country to country depends on a number of factors including salary, facilities and conditions of employment. Domestic considerations and family, however, are also major considerations. UK universities find it easier to attract scholars in Arts and Social Sciences from abroad than they do scientists and engineers as the resource demands are much more easily satisfied for non-scientists.

F. Substitutes for scientists and engineers

What skills do non-research businesses value scientists for?
As noted in Section A, the skills most valued by non-research employers are likely to include analytical/problem-solving skills that come from the complete study of a scientific discipline to at least first-degree level, together with numeracy and computing/IT knowledge.

Could non-scientists acquire more of these skills, and if so how?
As careers proceed beyond, for example, the first 10 years, the original educational label becomes less important, as most skilled people can do most things if trained and motivated. However, while there is a spectrum of ability, and hence a hierarchy, in the activities of creative staff in companies, there is a fundamental barrier in many activities to non-numerate staff.

Would more scientists and engineers being available to work in R&D lead to more scientists and engineers working in R&D?
Contract researchers in HEIs abound in medical and life sciences and they have difficulty in finding permanent jobs. However, contract researchers in the physical sciences and engineering are much less numerous, especially in engineering and computing science, many of whom are recruited from the middle and far east. Increasing the numbers of scientists in these areas should have impact upon the numbers working in R&D. However, the most effective way to attract scientists away from non-research businesses would be to improve the salaries of scientists working in R&D up to the levels attained in non-research businesses. Tax breaks to businesses with R&D laboratories should assist in this process.

Would reduced demand for researchers to work in non-R&D fields (such as firms in the City) alleviate any problems in the recruitment of researchers for traditional R&D fields? (issues of quality of researchers, quality of jobs, recruitment and retention in general)
It is difficult to see how demand for researchers in non-R&D fields can be reduced. In the physical sciences and engineering, the problem primarily lies with a shortage of quality students taking these courses.

 

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