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‘An attack on the future of science’: why UK researchers are paying attention

‘An attack on the future of science’: why UK researchers are paying attention

Protesters at the University of Cambridge, UK, on ​​November 24.Credit: Martin Pope/Getty

More than 70,000 academics and staff at 150 British universities began the largest strike in the history of higher education on November 24, protesting low wages, unsustainable working conditions and pension cuts. Among them are researchers say nature Poor working conditions undermine the future of science in the UK.

The strike comes after members of the Union of Universities and Colleges (UCU) voted in favor of the strike in two national polls last month. Since 2018, UCU members have repeatedly struck to demand a reversal of pension cuts, better wages, more acceptable working hours and job security.

This time, the strikers’ frustration centers on the 3% wage increase offered by universities for the 2022-2023 academic year, amid a cost-of-living crisis and with inflation topping 11% in the UK. Employees also say their workloads are dangerously high. UCU says university staff work an average of two extra days without pay per week, and a third of faculty work on temporary contracts.

In a statement, the Union of College and University Employers said the union’s demand for a 13.6% wage increase was unrealistic and would cost organizations around £1.5 billion ($1.8 billion).

The strikers also want universities to reverse the pension cut that took effect in April, which they say represents an average loss of 35% in retirement income. The cut was made after the March 2020 assessment of the Universities Pension Scheme (USS) said it had a shortfall of more than £14 billion. But the UCU says the deficit has since been resolved, and the June financial monitoring report released by the USS revealed a surplus of £1.8 billion. Universities UK, which represents employers participating in USS, say that even with the cuts, the scheme remains one of the most attractive private pension schemes in the country, and that the monitoring reports are not comparable to the full assessment, which is a more comprehensive assessment of the scheme.

nature He spoke to three British scientists about why they are on strike this year.

A recipe for bad science

Helen Colscheid is a chemist at King’s College London

While some Vice-Chancellors earn £500,000 and can claim expenses for all kinds of luxuries, our PhD students and staff use food banks. They decide which days they can take it, or which meals to skip. This level of inconsistency in one university is unacceptable.

At King’s, we have a gender pay gap of 15%, and a racial wage gap of 19%. There is a real lack of commitment to changing that. How can we get the best and the brightest in terms of diversity of perspective and equal access to universities, if we don’t pay people the same? It’s a recipe for bad science and a lack of innovation. The fact that we could all be on strike together means it’s hard to ignore.

At King’s, student numbers have increased by 25% over the past two years. At the same time, we achieved a 3.9% increase in headcount. So our staff-to-student ratio is insane, which has had knock-on effects in terms of our time availability and space to think about research.

What universities are doing is a direct attack on the future of science. Although it does not appear to be direct, it will implicitly influence the future of science in the UK and globally.

Rob Thomas holds a sign that reads

Robert Thomas says that long working hours and high teaching loads leave little time for research.Credit: Zack Hayward

‘The whole community is struggling’

Robert Thomas, a biologist at Cardiff University

I’ve been involved in strikes since I started working as a university lecturer, and this must be worrying for senior management teams, because their behavior continues to trigger strike action.

My research is primarily based on fieldwork. Excessive workloads took a toll on her. At one point, I was doing twice the maximum university teaching assignment. That translated into about 60 minutes a week for all of my postgraduate supervision, my own research, work publications, reviewing other people’s publications, etc. This is not acceptable in a modern, research-focused university.

At Cardiff University, we do not have a functional workload model. Therefore, there is no centralized data about who is doing what, and this leads to dangerously high workloads that are not officially recorded. This is not sustainable. We call for dialogue so that we do not strike again.

It is easy to feel isolated when working alone in the laboratory or in the field and feel unable to have a proper home and research life due to excessive workload. But taking time out while on strike and talking to other people in the same situation brings a powerful realization that we are not struggling in isolation. We strive as a whole community of educators and researchers.

“I’m going to stop peer reviewing for profitable publishers”

Richard Harris, Geographer at the University of Bristol

I don’t hit much. But I’m going this time for two reasons. This is the 12th year in a row that employers have offered wage increases that are below inflation, meaning payrolls are getting smaller each year. They offered a 3% wage increase, but inflation is around 11%. This represents an 8% wage cut in real terms, equivalent to the loss of one month’s wages.

Added to this are pension cuts. We’ve done one reduction after another, and I don’t think it’s sustainable in terms of science in the UK, because people are going to leave and they’ve already started. Academia is becoming a less attractive job for PhD students.

I’m going to hold off on peer review for monetizing publishers until the industry feud is settled, because it’s based on goodwill and very little of it is actually paid for. The broader academic system – and this includes publishing – depends on goodwill and on people doing things outside of their contracts.

There is no specific reason for an academic to review a journal paper; It is not in their contract to do so. The reason we do this is because universities are about sharing information and knowledge. But when you keep cutting people’s salaries and pensions, those good intentions start to dissipate.


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