Research and rescue

The Skills Gap Awards aim to help engineering high-fliers find ‘safe havens’ in academia. Ellie Zolfagharifard reports.


Top-level engineers and scientists who lose their jobs in the economic downturn could be offered work in academic research by a new government-backed scheme.

Research Councils UK (RCUK) has launched its Skills Gap Awards to recruit highly qualified people into research and technology-transfer posts throughout the country.

With support from government and businesses, RCUK will provide funding of up to £5m over six months to help ensure the UK remains a global research leader.

Universities and research councils have traditionally harboured some of the brightest talent in the country and in the current economic climate they could provide a safe haven for skilled individuals with a background in industry, said Skills Gap’s organisers.

The main objective of the project is to ensure that appointments are made rapidly. Decisions are expected to be made within four weeks with interim project funds to be awarded through the Medical Research Council (MRC). The MRC funds will provide initial project support and facilities while appointees seek grant funding from industry partners.

As part of its strategic skills drive, the Biological Science Research Council is backing the initiative and will advance funding for a further 20 four-year studentships in the areas of ageing research, bioprocessing, bioenergy and environmental change. Also, the Economic and Social Research Council will provide 30 studentships.

Confusion surrounded the role, if any, of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), however. Although a statement from the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) said the EPSRC would be involved in Skills Gap, the organisation itself could not confirm its participation or what form it would take.

More permanent efforts to encourage a two-way movement between individuals working in the private sector and those in the academic sector will begin next year through proposed people-exchange programmes, said the DIUS.

Lord Drayson, science and innovation minister, said future university-business collaboration would be vital in ensuring the UK’s position as a leading knowledge economy.

‘Many businesses and industries in the UK employ first-rate scientists,’ he said. ‘In the current economic downturn, some highly qualified people may face uncertain futures so we need to give them all the opportunities we can to stay working in our research base or in wider science-based roles. These initiatives are an important part of that effort.

‘By keeping top talent in the UK research base, we ensure that UK universities and our research institutions have the wide range of expertise they need to support innovation. Forging ever closer links between academia and industry will be key to future growth in innovative companies.’