These are good times for those with an interest in science at postgrad level. With the Government committed to investing in research and a wide variety of career options available, there has never been a greater incentive for the budding scientists of the future to take the plunge.
The phrase ‘knowledge economy’ gets thrown around a great deal. There are various definitions of what it really means, but in practical terms it refers to efforts to create economic activity with a higher value.
So rather than investing in basic manufacturing capacity only for investment to go to locations where capital costs and wages are much lower, for example, the focus shifts to high tech manufacturing and, even more importantly, the research and development work that takes place around it.
The National Skills Bulletin 2006 reported that 24,400 persons were employed in science occupations, representing 1.25 per cent of total employment. These workers were primarily employed in the manufacture of chemicals and chemical products and in health and social work. Engineering and scientific technicians comprised the largest single group.
Between 2000 and 2005, overall employment of scientists increased at a higher rate than overall employment growth. Biological scientists were most in demand, with 1600 additional positions created over the five year period, while employment of scientific and other technicians, physicists and other natural scientists also grew strongly.
However, with the number of students studying science at undergraduate level declining in recent years, there is the danger that if this trend continues, a shortage of research scientists can be expected in the future.
This is a possibility the Government is acutely aware of judging by its various science and technology initiatives. Most of us would be cynical when it comes to political commitments, but this is one area where the Government has puts its money where its mouth is.
For example, the Strategy for Science, Technology & Innovation 2006-2013 includes a commitment to doubling the number of PhDs in Ireland. The strategy also aims to allow researchers to move from PhD training to postdoctoral positions and move in and out of the country to gain international R&D experience more easily.
There has been much debate within the university system about the need for a graduate school type mechanism to ensure the most effective professional development for researchers. It is suggested that this more structured approach to postgraduate formation also has the potential to reduce the time taken to complete a PhD and increase the completion rates of entrants to doctoral programmes.
In November the Minister for Enterprise Trade and Employment announced Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) research investment awards amounting to €87 million across a number of industry-academic projects.
This is the largest funding award made by SFI under its Centres for Science, Engineering and Technology (CSET) and the new Strategic Research Clusters (SRC) programmes. The awards will support one CSET and twelve SRCs.
The award recipients work in biotechnology and information communications technology across 11 academic institutions in Ireland and their partnerships with industry involve a total of 48 companies, both multinational and indigenous. The project involves almost 500 senior researchers, post docs and PhD students.
In September, the Embark Initiative operated by the Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology (IRCSET) confirmed offers of research funding to 49 candidates from the second call under its Postgraduate Research Scholarship Scheme 2007.
The funding of approximately €3.6 million will support new Doctoral and Masters level researchers in science, engineering and technology. PhD funding is made available for up to three years to outstanding students, although this time period may be revised to cater for students whose research demands longer time periods.
For those who complete their postgraduate studies the financial rewards can be considerable. Last year’s Forfas report on Comparative Starting Salaries and Career Progression of Graduates in Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) found that graduates with higher qualifications, such as PhDs, tend to be paid significantly more than those with just primary degrees.
More than 80 per cent of PhD graduates in a range of areas including engineering and biosciences earning starting salaries in excess of €33,000.
The report also said that stipends for postgraduate study in Ireland at €24,000 continue to be sufficiently attractive to encourage sufficient competition for research places amongst candidates from Ireland and abroad.
‘We will need to maintain the competitiveness of student stipends over the coming years at a level that is attractive to the best students, without compromising quality, so as to achieve the Government’s objective to double PhD output in the sciences and humanities by 2013,’ said Mary Cryan, chair of the Science Council.
The fact Ireland does not yet have a sufficiently high profile as a location of choice for world class research means that persuading the best researchers from Ireland and abroad to work here can be difficult. The good news for future postgrads is that there are also plans to make science a more attractive option by offering flexible career paths to reduce the reliance on two year post doctoral contracts.
Emphasis will be placed on sustainable career development rather than only focusing on early stage careers. At the moment, there is limited opportunity for career development within the higher education sector and the Advisory Science Council has been asked to examine and come forward with proposals on this issue.