Action needed to boost number of postdocs

12 May 2005

Urgent action is needed to attract and retain postdoctorate researchers if Ireland is to achieve its ambition of becoming a knowledge economy, a conference in Dublin heard last week.

Speaking at the two-day Building Research Careers event organised by the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities (CHIU), Dr Barry McSweeney, the Government’s chief science advisor, identified the lack of career paths for postdoctoral researchers as a grave concern.

“There are no professional research career structures either in Ireland, Europe or the US. This is frankly unsustainable,” he said.

McSweeney stressed that Ireland would need to expand its pool of research talent if it was to manage the transition to a knowledge-based economy. “Increasingly, manufacturing projects are in jeopardy because the costs are too high relative to the profit being generated by them. We have 230,000 employed in the manufacturing sector but only 130,000 [of these are] in high-tech manufacturing. We’ve got to get that ratio up if we want to minimise job losses.”

One of the ways this could be done, he said, would be to introduce a new seven-year contract for postdoctoral researchers, which would give them more time to develop their careers than the standard three-year contract term on offer to them. McSweeney said this proposal would form a key plank of his strategic development plan for research to be presented to Cabinet at the end of June.

A seven-year contract term would be unique in Europe and give Ireland the edge over other locations as a place to do research, he argued.

Dr Conor O’Carroll, head of the research office at the CHIU, noted that postdoctorates had benefited hugely from funding increases in recent years such that €450m was made available for postdocs in 2004 compared to just €27m in 1997. However, most of the funding targeted postdocs who had recently completed their PhD
and relatively little at the more experienced independent researchers. O’Carroll saw the mooted seven-year contract as a means of bridging the gap between the two groups and ensuring that postdocs could continue to develop their careers.

McSweeney warned however that the growing number of post-docs in the system would need to be matched by a commensurate rise in the number of principal investigators — the research team leaders who garner most of the available research funding.

Noting too that the number of homegrown researchers would be insufficient to fuel the demand in the economy for PhDs in the years to come, McSweeney also said that continuing efforts were needed to attract back both Irish researchers working abroad and researchers from other countries.

Identifying second-level education was another area of concern, McSweeney said ways needed to be found to increase the number of students taking science subjects but particularly chemistry and physics at Leaving Certificate level. Currently of the 60pc of Leaving Certificate students taking science subjects, only 13pc take chemistry and 11pc take physics.

“This is not the profile that’s going to support a knowledge-based economy — it’s as blunt as that,” he observed. “We need to look very carefully at those leakage points.”

Pictured at last week’s research seminar were, from left: Dr Conor O’Carroll of the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities (CHIU); the Government’s chief science advisor Dr Barry McSweeney; Paddy Teahon and Michael McGrath, both from CHIU

By Brian Skelly