When we think about the people involved in research our minds automatically think first about established leaders, then maybe PhD students or post-docs but rarely – if ever – do technicians and other non-faculty staff feature. Yet all of us who work in bioscience know how vital these roles are and how much the individuals in these roles contribute to keeping the UK’s science world leading. The ongoing Gatsby-led campaign (or #techniciansmakeithappen on Twitter) has done a great job of raising awareness of technical roles across sectors – and we need to sustain this focus.

In BBSRC we wanted to develop a better understanding of non-faculty staff roles, their career structures and how they are rewarded – so we ran a survey. The first problem we encountered was how to address the survey so that we could reach the relevant people – the range of job titles is quite staggering! We opted for the phrase ‘non-faculty researchers’ which has the advantage of being both descriptive and inclusive.

We were delighted to get over 800 responses, which together form an incredibly rich dataset. We still have a lot of digging and organising of the data to do but one point that is coming out loud and clear is how diverse and poorly-defined this group is.

The diversity is illustrated by the range of roles respondents are in – from IT and Computing to high throughput sequencing and from managing aquaria to managing buildings. 6% of respondents were under 25, with 11% over 56, and some had provided up to 38 years of service at their current institutions – just imagine the level of expertise these individuals will have built up. 51% of the respondents have doctorates, with a further 27% having undergraduate degrees. Job titles ranged from Stores Technician to Senior Experimental Officer, Analytical Chemist to Research Data and Computational Resources Manager.

The lack of definition of this group is potentially a serious issue for a number of reasons – one of the more important being professional development. Our survey results suggest that non-faculty staff vary widely in their ability to identify themselves as part of a wider professional group and some can struggle to form anything more than small, informal groups and don’t access professional networks such as HEaTED.

This matters because it means this group of staff are often under the radar – back to the opening of this blog – visible opportunities can be lacking while the opposite is also true, these staff aren’t readily visible to the job market. Such a position could lead to employers worrying less about retention and consequently having less incentive to train, nurture and develop the careers of non-faculty staff.

We know that industry is often looking for individuals who have the skill set which non-faculty staff possess – problem solving, technical know-how and the all-round skills that are required to manage multiple projects on different instruments, sometimes entire facilities – but even industry struggles to access this job market because of its lack of cohesion.

Many organisations have a stake in addressing this issue – Research Councils, HEFCE, employers, learned societies and others – and it’s an issue which we need to address together and at the ecosystem level. Over the coming months we in BBSRC will be working with others to make sense of the survey data we’ve collected and developing an action plan that we hope will lead to better support and recognition for the unsung heroes of bioscience research – the non-faculty staff who play such a vital and enabling role.

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