Arctic Science Conference 2015 & thoughts on technicians (or the lack thereof)

Last week the University of Sheffield has hosted the 2015 NERC Arctic Science Conference. I got roped in to helping out with the conference organisation after another PhD student (who was previously helping) went and got herself a real job ten days before the conference started. Talk about awkward timing!

My role was to liaise with the UK Polar Network (UKPN) and ensure that the early career conference attendees were well catered for. For those who don’t know, the UKPN is the British branch of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS). Both organisations work to promote the interests of Masters students, PhD researchers, Postdocs and other early career scientists in polar fields. This includes running events like mentor panels, public outreach events and skills workshops.

In this case I was helping the UKPN team to run a mentor panel on career progression in academia, especially focusing on getting and completing Postdocs, and to set up their AGM, which is held every year at the Artic or Antarctic NERC conference (they alternate annually). After a bit of stressful last minute running around, both events went off (mostly) without any hiccups. Thankfully!

In particular the panel event was very well attended, possibly because it was held in a pub. This was a very interesting session that led to some fairly heated discussions on the relative merits of Postdocs vs. industry positions vs. getting the hell out of research. It was particularly interesting to get opinions from members of the panel who hold positions in ‘normal’ university-based academia compared to those in ‘public’ research institutions (namely the British Antarctic Survey). This raised some interesting differences in the career paths and funding practices of these different research bodies. Not to mention eliciting some conflicting opinions from some very world-weary Postdocs!

There was however one thing that the whole room agreed on – we want more technical positions. Most projects in the polar sciences require some technical expertise, be it field skills, looking after equipment, lab work or computer-based skills. At present these technical skills tend to be provided by Postdocs with the exception of field skills, which are can be provided by specialised field assistants, and the use and maintenance of lab equipment, which is done by lab technicians. The UKPN group at the panel event felt this was not sufficient to cover the range of specialised skills needed. We also felt that getting Postdocs to do this work is essentially just a way to get access to the skills without paying for a full-time permanent technician. In particular Postdocs are often expected to spend long periods of time using their specialist technical skills to work on small parts of projects that they are essential for but from which they will receive no funding or publications. Seems a little unfair and perhaps even exploitative.

From the PhD student perspective, I would agree with the above complaints and would add that a wider range of permanent technical staff would be extremely useful for everyone in a department. For example, the Geography Department here at Sheffield used to have a specialist cartographer to help academics make maps and figures for publication. This role was axed with the advent of widespread personal computing but now everyone from PhD students to Professors has to make their own figures (or pay to outsource this skill). Constructing maps and figures takes a lot of time and can involve learning specialist software, hence the large number of figures you see in papers and on posters that have clearly been made in PowerPoint! Would it not be better and possibly more cost-effective to have a technician who knows all the right software packages and can make figures for you? Equally it would save many PhD students, me included, months if we had someone we could go to for assistance with technical computer work – particularly GIS, MatLab and programming. The university’s IT services can usually install the required software but that tends to be the limit of their usefulness. We need better support in these areas and it does look like hiring permanent technical staff would be a good solution. Technical positions would also be a way to provide more permanent job options for those who want to stay in academia but who don’t want to do research or who can’t commit to the transient life of a Postdoc.

Anyway, rant over. It was an interesting week and it was great to have the chance to see ‘behind the scenes’ at a conference. I recommend that any polar scientists reading this check out future Antarctic and Arctic NERC conferences and that the early career people amongst you get yourselves joined up to the UKPN. It’s free and you get access to loads of useful events as well as a network of like-minded people to talk to/ rant about the lack of technicians with!


p.s. the image for this post is from:

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