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Policy briefs: Spring/summer 2017

Copyright: nettel9, iStock

How does BBSRC work with policymakers across the world?

Supporting the wider scientific workforce

David McAllister, BBSRC Head of Skills and Careers, highlights efforts to ensure the UK’s science base has solid foundations from the bottom up.

Copyright: BBSRC
David McAllister. Copyright: BBSRC

Technicians, technical specialists, experimental officers, facilities managers, non-faculty researchers. Call them what you like (and, according to the Software Sustainability Institute, there were almost 200 different job titles for research software engineers alone), this group of highly trained and highly skilled people are essential to the research effort in UK universities, research institutes and research-intensive private sector. Until now, they have been a relatively invisible group to research funding and policy organisations, but this is changing.

In March, BBSRC and the Science Council convened a workshop looking at the challenges facing these ‘non-faculty researchers’ (NFRs) in the biosciences, and asked the question: what can be done to help this group?

In a highly energised discussion, delegates were keen to emphasise the importance that NFRs have in supporting an efficient, effective and productive research base, and to ensure that investments made by the research councils (particularly in infrastructure and equipment) have maximum impact. Access to continued professional development, formal training and mentoring and recognition on research outputs (including papers and patents) was seen as essential to ensure NFRs remain motivated and recognised as professional researchers in their own right, rather than in support of the research efforts of others.

Professional recognition of NFRs at the highest strategic level within research organisations was seen by the delegates as essential to providing a clear career route, and strong voice, to this group, ensuring that the needs to technical specialists, as well as senior academics and directors of professional services are considered within institutional strategies.

Copyright: BBSRC
Workshop delegates work over how best to support non-faculty researchers (NFRs) at the BBSRC and Science Council supported event. Copyright: BBSRC

The possibilities the new apprenticeships levy and degree/Masters-level apprenticeships offered to NFRs were highlighted, but there was some concern that this new focus on apprenticeships was not at the expense of the professional development and provision of opportunity to existing NFRs. With the focus on technical up-skilling within the UK Government’s new Industrial Strategy, there is a need to ensure a cohesive strategy in this area, spanning all stages of education and career stages, and NFRs have potentially an important role in this.

So what happens now? The outputs from this workshop will shortly be published, alongside a new RCUK Statement of Expectations on Technical Specialists, the BBSRC Vision for Postdoctoral Researchers, and will complement a refreshed Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers which will be published in early 2018, to coincide with its tenth anniversary.

We have already published an associated guidance note to the Concordat highlighting the support institutions should give to people engaged in research. As the research councils and HEFCE move closer (with Innovate UK) into UK Research and Innovation, there is a great opportunity to join up the vocational, technical and academic education and skills, and produce a cohesive talent strategy to support a productive UK research base.

Tags: policy research innovation industry feature