October 19, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Innovation is valuable; that’s why the government places such great emphasis on it in their plan for economic growth. Usually, it’s hard to predict where the next big innovation might come from – and so traditionally, scientific research spreads its net wide, so as to maximise it chances of hitting on great discoveries.

But the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee has recently questioned whether the range of available PhD studentships in the UK is broad enough. Training young scientists through doctorates is an integral part of ensuring innovations happen, so this could be troubling news.

The committee put their perceived narrowing of research covered in PhDs down to the reduction in project studentships, which it called a “vital part” of doctoral training provision. Until recently, the majority of academic scientists were trained on project studentships. These grants are awarded to specific research proposals submitted by supervisors and can be focused on almost anything. The project is then assigned to the supervisor’s preferred PhD candidate.

But the UK research councils have recently begun to favour a different method of PhD training; the Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) model. CDTs train students in ‘cohorts’, the members of which carry out several short research stints in different labs during their first year. Then, armed with a broad knowledge base (at least in theory), they choose a project themselves from within the CDT’s predefined limits. There are only a limited number of CDTs, around 50 for the physical sciences.

The Select Committee’s report, released in July, examines higher education provision in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects. It says there appears to be a “mismatch” between the sort of students the HE system is producing, and those that industry requires to drive the economy. CDTs were largely set up to address this problem by turning out graduates who are useful to industry. According to Professor Adrian Sutton, who set up a materials science CDT at Imperial College, CDT-trained students do end up highly accomplished. He says industrialists are “already queuing up to employ our people”.

However, some are worried that CDTs are being rolled out too far and too fast. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has discontinued their project studentship funding altogether, opting instead to provide all their PhD funding through CDTs. The Lords’ report questions whether this was the right decision.

The consensus in the evidence submitted to the committee from expert groups was that CDTs are an effective method of training PhDs – but favouring that model to the exclusion of project studentships would be bad news.

CDTs “should not be the only [PhD training] model”, according to the Engineering Professors’ Council. Since there are a limited number of CDTs – and these cover pre-defined areas of science – it would be difficult to cover the entire breadth of research were these were the only funding option. Particularly affected would be newly emerging areas of innovation.

The committee noted that organic chemistry has only one CDT in the UK (at the University of Bristol), and that without other funding models it would be difficult to recruit fresh PhD students to other chemistry departments.

Ultimately, the report calls on the government to “preserve a variety of PhD delivery models”. According to a committee spokesperson, the government is due to respond to the report in September. In the meantime the Lords also called for an expert group to be convened with the task of assessing whether the “current provision for funding doctoral study across funding bodies is sufficient to cover the breadth of excellent research across the UK”.

Image from House of Lords from Wikipedia.com