From Laboratory News, January 1995

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The Ford Questionnaire

British Scientists complain of
Low Morale and Poor Prospects

Introduction

What do scientists think of science? We hear views from both sides, but there has been no first-hand evidence to show whether British science is in good shape or bad. It was to throw light on the subject that the questionnaire was constructed. The results are clear:

The proposal that the government’s science policy was ‘far-sighted and valuable’ was rejected by 95% of respondents.
A similar number rejected the notion that science is ‘more soundly-based than ever before’
93% believe that students reject science as a career because of the pay and prospects.
On job satisfaction, 98% reject the idea that ‘morale is high’
97% oppose the proposition that current policies have a beneficial effect on innovation.

Structure

The questionnaire was compiled as statements which could be marked ‘true’ or ‘false’ by respondents. Eight of the statements were essentially positive, and six negative. I realised that there was a need to overcome the problem of self-selection. A questionnaire in a science magazine purchased at a news-stand would be expected to bring answers from enthusiasts who had shown a commitment to the subject by their choice of purchase. As a controlled-circulation monthly, Laboratory News is sent to all laboratories and so the catchment is more likely to be representative.

Publication

The questions were published in the January edition, and 240 respondents sent in their replies. There is such rare unanimity that standard deviations and sampling errors seem superfluous. More than 95% of respondents claimed the following were ‘false’:

An overwhelming majority (more than 80%) believe the following:

research is definitely not holding its own.

Divided opinions

Rather more than half of British scientists (57%) seem to believe that wealth creation is not a major purpose of scientific research. But about half as many (27%) think it is, and roughly half that number (16%) believe the question is not applicable. Do youngsters find science essentially boring? Opinions are divided: 50% think they don’t; 45% believe they do; 5% cast no opinion.

The role of managers in science is viewed as a largely negative factor: 70% of the sample felt managers were ‘disruptive and negative’, with only 15% approving of their influence. How would today’s scientists tell youngsters about a career in science? Almost three-quarters of the sample (70%) would advise against it, though more than a quarter (27%) would still consider science a worthwhile career. But have scientists found their own careers satisfying? About two-thirds (63%) felt their career in science had not fulfilled their hopes, with 29% claiming it had.

Salaries

One question looked at pay increases. It was phrased in this way:

The Association of University Teachers claimed, after a recent survey, that some scientists were not receiving due pay increases. Have you received yours?

I found that 43% of the sample said they had not received their due pay increases, a surprisingly large percentage. The proportion in the AUT survey was 12% - but they recorded a further 29% who did not know if they had. Interestingly, these two categories add up to 41%, which may correlate with the figures we returned.

Old and Young

The sample was also analysed to reveal the effect of age on opinion. We took those aged over 55 and compared them with the scientists aged under 37. The immediate result was a more extreme view on key questions. Thus, the propositions of an increasingly sound base for science, high morale and the beneficial effects of current policies were rejected by 100% of the older group. Younger scientists were more moderate, with 86% rejecting the idea of science now having a sound base and 88% rejecting high morale and the benefits of current policies.

Not a single one of the respondents in both these age-groups supported the notion that ‘current policies have a positive and beneficial effect on innovation’. There has been heavy emphasis on technology foresight and market-led research. Innovation has been given a high profile in recent years, and this wholesale rejection is remarkable. Interestingly, 12% of the younger scientists felt the effects of policy on innovation was ‘not applicable’. None of the older scientists ticked this option. Three-quarters (74%) of the older scientists would advise a youngster against a scientific career, a proportion which fell to less than two-thirds (64%) in the younger age-group.

It is clear that it is modern science which people find so disappointing. Almost half (46%) of older scientists felt their career had matched their hopes, whereas less than one-fifth (18%) of the younger scientists agreed.

Sex differences

We had a smaller number of women scientists (40 were female, 200 were male). They showed a similar tendency towards the more extreme view shown by the over-55s. The women scored 100% for the same questions as the older pooled sample, and also for the rejection of the government’s policies being ‘far-sighted and valuable’. Their views on the extent to which their careers had matched their ambitions, by contrast, matched the younger sample. The women scored 29% in agreement (18% of the younger scientists and 46% of the older agreed) and 71% against (74% of the younger and 48% of the older scientists concurred).

What of pay increases? 28% of the younger scientists said they had received theirs, and 30% of the older scientists in the sample. The women claimed that 36% had been given their pay-rise on time.

Conclusions

This survey shows widespread dissatisfaction with the state of modern science. Government views on innovation and on science policy are almost universally rejected by the scientific community. You might conclude that it is time the two sides met - but that does not work. At many meetings which I have attended, the politicians speak enthusiastically at their end, and the scientists complain bitterly at theirs. But when they meet, the differences disappear. So keen are the scientists to gain favour, to solicit for higher priorities or larger grants, that the long-awaited chance to launch a considered campaign of complaint vanishes.

The result is that no serious assessment of grievances takes place. It is hoped that this survey will help throw light on the underlying attitudes which govern the future of science.

See also: main bibliography, report entitled National Science, Weak and original questionnaire with full results.