The Royal Society of Biology has established the ‘Returners to Bioscience’ group to examine the experiences of those who face such difficulties in returning to a career in the biosciences as well as those who achieve success. This is in light of our continued concern that trained and committed scientists are being lost from the bioscience workforce.
The group, which includes representatives from funders, employers, learned societies and a number of former ‘returners’ themselves, seeks to provide resources and mechanisms to support scientists before, during and after a career break.
A career break can occur for many reasons such as the need to focus on caring responsibilities, illness, unemployment or a desire to change career paths (for example switching between industry and academia). Difficulty in returning from a career break affects those across the spectrum of science careers including teachers, technicians and industrial scientists.
Women are disproportionately affected by career breaks. Taking time out to care for family members is one of the most commonly cited reasons why women are underrepresented at the upper levels of the career ladder. This is particularly evident in the biosciences; according to 2011/2012 HESA figures, 61% of postgraduate students were female, yet at professorial level this figure dropped to 15%.
The UK is facing a skills shortage. One potential source of talent lies within the so-called ‘returners’ community; those who have taken extended career breaks and would be happy to return to work if difficulties in trying to do so could be overcome.
There are a number of reasons behind why taking an extended period of time out can be particularly problematic for scientists - of either gender. Firstly science is, by its very nature, a rapidly evolving and progressing subject. Techniques, theories and equipment can alter dramatically in a matter of years. Therefore returners can face real difficulties in remaining up to date.
The criteria by which the science community measures success, particularly in the academic research community, can also pose a problem. Over-reliance on publication records and journal impact factors mean that a scientist who has not published continuously can often struggle to compete for research funding and permanent positions. However, career breaks were taken into account in the recent REF exercise so there is some evidence that this problem is beginning to be addressed.
Furthermore, the very culture of the academic science community can also introduce barriers; part-time working can be difficult to find or negotiate and the competitive nature of science can leave returners feeling that the chances of success are small.
It is vital that the returners community is supported and the message is conveyed to employers and Higher Education Institutions that potential returners are an untapped talent pool.
There are signs that the Government is beginning to take this message on board. Returners featured in the recent Science and Innovation strategy released by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and HM Treasury in December. As part of plans to nurture scientific talent, the Government aims to develop a dedicated platform that matches female STEM graduates to jobs in industry following career breaks, and to provide advice and information about the support on offer.
If you would like any further information about the Royal Society of Biology’s Returners to bioscience initiative, or if you would be interested in providing a case study, please get in touch with the policy team.