Budget: 1000 New PhD STEM Studentships

I was out of the office all day yesterday at a very interesting meeting at the Institute of Physics, so I wasn’t able to listen to the 2017 Budget speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. On the way home by train, however, I caught up with some of the content and reaction via Twitter and various news outlets.

One thing of particular relevance to those of us who work in STEM subjects was the following announcement (from the BBC website):

  • £300m to support 1,000 new PhD places and fellowships in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects

There’s a bit more detail about this here:

He also confirmed that the Industrial Strategy Fund will be managed by Innovate UK in its first year of existence, and will be administered by UK Research and Innovation from 2018-19.

The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is part of the National Productivity Investment Fund. As trailed earlier in the week, a further £90m from the NPIF will be spent on an additional 1,000 PhD places in areas aligned with the government’s industrial strategy. Around 85 per cent of these places will be in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, and 40 per cent will focus on strengthening industry-academia collaboration.

Also under the NPIF, a total of £160m will be spent on new fellowships for early and mid-career researchers in areas aligned with the industrial strategy.

The NPIF will also include spending of £50m over the next four years on fellowship programmes to attract researchers from overseas.

So these studentships will be funded from the “extra money” for science and research announced in the Autumn Statement last year and it looks like they will be focussed on industrial applications rather than “pure” science.

The number 1000 seems a lot, but it has to be seen in perspective. Each year the Science and Technology Facilities Council funds about 100 PhD studentships in Astronomy, and a similar number in Particle Physics. Far more Physics PhDs are funded through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which looks after the rest of physics as well as engineering and the rest of the physical sciences. Then there are the life sciences, medical research and all the other disciplines which are larger still. In 2014 the total number of students starting a PhD in STEM disciplines in England alone was about 6600. Not all these were funded by the UK research councils, of course, but that gives you some idea of the scale. The extra places this year are a significant boost, but don’t represent a huge increase across the board. They may have a real impact in specific areas, of course, depending on where they are targetted. Note also that the recent large growth in PhD places in the UK has largely been driven by access to EU funding programmes, which we are determined to throw away.

I don’t know how these studentships will be allocated, though I suspect they will be administered through the existing Research Council channels. However, if they are to be filled from October 2017 this will have to be decided quickly, as this year’s recruitment cycle is well under way.

On the other hand, rumours of extra money for PhD students in STEM subjects have been circulating for some time so I think this has been known about behind the scenes long enough to make preparations. I suspect it has all been under wraps until yesterday for political reasons, i.e. to allow the Chancellor to include it in his speech. I imagine things will now move pretty quickly and we’ll know quite soon where the studentships will be allocated.

It’s also worth noting that the money for studentships will be spread over 4 years, which means that this increase is effectively just for one cohort of students (a PhD typically taking 3-4 years to complete). We don’t know whether this level will be maintained in future to compensate for loss of EU funds.

Extra investment in STEM subjects is to be welcomed, but I do wonder about the wisdom of increasing PhD student numbers still further. As I have stated before, I think we already produce far too many PhDs. I think this money might be better spent increasing the number of Masters graduates or improving funding for STEM undergraduate programmes.


15 Responses to “Budget: 1000 New PhD STEM Studentships”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    Yes, the 1000 new PhD studentships was one of the things that I noticed most during the Chancellor’s speech.

    My opinion is that there is a view in the Treasury that PhDs provide experience of direct relevance to business. Whilst there is some truth in this, many of the skills that research students build up during PhD research do not always match the interests of business. However, the announcement emphasises connections with industry, which is in keeping with the statement last autumn, and the new studentships may have some direct connection with commercial applications. (I was disappointed last autumn that the extra funding was stated as being allocated to industrial areas, rather than being for support of science, technology and engineering more generally. Other people seemed more optimistic than me last autumn that some of the money would be allocated across science.)

    The budget red book states:

    Talent funding – The NPIF will invest £250 million over the next four years to continue to build the pipeline of high-skilled research talent necessary for a growing and innovative economy:

    £90 million will provide an additional 1,000 PhD places in areas aligned with the Industrial Strategy. Around 85% will be in STEM disciplines, and 40% will directly help strengthen collaboration between business and academia through industrial partnerships

    a further £160 million will support new fellowships for early and mid-career researchers in areas aligned to the Industrial Strategy

    The loss of European Union science funding and an increase in funding for industry could mean a deliberate strategic shift from basic science to technology and engineering. That could affect the viability of some university departments with an emphasis on basic research.

    Any talk of an increase in PhD studentships causes me worry that it could make the imbalance in PhDs to long-term academic positions in basic science even worse than it is now, with a consequent increase in the need for luck and patronage in establishing academic careers. I did argue the existing situation caused severe problems before the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology a month ago. However, there may be few or none of the new studentships in basic science.

    An increase in numbers of fellowships could be worthwhile, but it is unclear whether these will be restricted to technology and engineering. It is also unclear how these will be allocated, and whether there will be restrictions on who can apply. (Will applicants need to be nominated by universities or companies? Will there be proxies for age? Will talented individuals be free to apply on their own initiative, or will they have to go through university departments, with a consequent favouring of certain individuals? The rules determine who can apply, and therefore who can be excluded by lack of support from others, or by age.)

    So there is very little clarity about the new funding. Details will be revealed over coming months.

  2. Several years ago one of my colleagues approached the Technical Director and asked if she could be sponsored to do a PhD. After much lengthy discussion with the local Uni, he agreed, but warned her that ‘We are expecting you to come up with something that can be commercially exploited straight away, otherwise the whole thing is a waste of time.’

    The present cabinet is made up of Oxbridge graduates – PPE, History, Geography and Classics – and I can’t help wondering how much they really understand about STEM subjects or pure research.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I too worry about how few scientists we have in British politics.

      However, a bigger problem still may be the composition of the civil service. My hunch is that the Treasury believes that training considerable numbers of people to PhD level generates economic growth in itself, without understanding the need also to provide support for people within academic science to transfer to occupations in business and industry.

      • I wonder what kind of support you mean?

        At least in particle physics I don’t see many people having problems transferring to industry straight after PhD or even after 3-5 postdocs. But it could just be specific to that field I suppose.

      • telescoper Says:

        Indeed. In my experience companies actually headhunt PhD astronomers.

        We can always do more, however. We’ve set up a scheme in which PhD students can do placements in industry during their PhD – we had one at Sussex and now have a similar one in Cardiff.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        What I mean by support is careers advice beyond generic CV preparation and discussion of what companies might employ generic science PhDs. I mean advice that is subject specific, given by careers advisors with knowledge of possible career destinations for people in particular areas of science, and given to people on an individual basis.

        I have never been headhunted by any company. I have now been out of work for eight years following the end of my last employment as a lecturer. I cannot find work and have found no source of advice. I doubt my savings will last until I receive state pension.

        The careers system as regards transfer to industry for people with extensive academic postdoctoral experience simply does not function for many former university staff.

      • It should be possible to give field specific advice. I know the industries all the students in the group I work in have gone to, as well as where in industry colleagues from other institutes have gone into after a few postdocs. So the knowledge is there, but its true the careers advisors have no idea of this knowledge in my experience. One postdoc I used to know was told to retrain as an accountant by the university careers service (though as far as I know not many physicists with PhDs go down such a route, and they did not mention the many industries where people do go to).

        As for headhunting a colleague told me his group was targeted by hedge funds, though mine has not been as far as I know. So it may therefore depend which university, not just which field.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        My opinion is that each research council should employ a careers advisor who would visit each research group within the field of the council from time to time. The advisors would give one-to-one careers advice to each fixed-term member of staff, and to PhD students, at least once every two years. That would include postdocs, research fellows and fixed-term lecturers.

        University careers advice tends to be very oriented towards undergraduates. Indeed it would be inefficient for universities each to develop the expertise to offer appropriate advice to postdocs and PhD students in each and every research field. It would be better done by research councils.

        To my knowledge, no research group ever I worked in was targetted by headhunters, at least when I was there. I’ve heard a story that a finance company visits Imperial and Cambridge physics departments.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Many thanks for that suggestion. It is very helpful to receive advice of this kind.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Many thanks. All suggestions are welcome.

      • If you had experience of writing computer code as an astronomer, I would think you can use that. Seems to be one of the major skills that gets people in my field jobs in all sorts of companies.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        As a very experienced programmer, I applied for a great many computing jobs but had no success. It may be that recruiters are interested only in young applicants whom they regard (probably wrongly) as being more flexible, or candidates with commercial experience.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        My feeling about teaching is that the primary requirement is to be able to maintain discipline in a class among pupils, many of whom are bored and do not want to be there. I simply do not know whether I have the abilities to do that, and would not want to commit to gaining teaching qualifications only to find that I did not have the ability to maintain discipline. Teaching assistant posts in Britain only receive 50%-60% of what a postdoc would receive.

      • telescoper Says:

        You could apply for a £30K bursary from the IOP to train as a teacher..

  3. There does seem to be a correlation (word used loosely; no offence intended to Bayesians) between technical qualifications in Government and economic growth in the countries they govern. Dr Angela Merkel is a physicist by training; I understand all but one of the Chinese politburo have scientific or technical degrees; many Indian leading politicians have technical degrees.

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