Report to BBSRC Recommends Action on Niche Areas of Expertise

October 15, 2009

An independent panel made a series of recommendations to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) on concerns over potential shortages in strategically important and vulnerable niche areas of research expertise. The report, from the BBSRC Skills and Careers Strategy Panel, has identified potential risks in niche skills within the broad areas of Whole Animal Physiology; Industrial Biotechnologies; Plant and Agricultural sciences; and Systematics and Taxonomy. The panel recommends action in these areas by BBSRC.

The report to BBSRC seeks to ensure that where there are niche areas of expertise vital to the UK's research efforts these are not overlooked, particularly where there may be fewer employment opportunities or a lower profile amongst students.

The report follows a consultation run by BBSRC and the Biosciences Federation (which recently joined with the Institute of Biology to form the Society of Biology) on strategically important and vulnerable capabilities in UK bioscience. The focus of the consultation was on 'niche skills' - areas of expertise where the number of experts needed may be relatively small, but where they provide a vital contribution to the UK's ongoing research expertise in a particular area. Responses to the consultation were received from individuals and professional bodies, who were asked to provide not just evidence of vulnerability in the availability of particular expertise, but explain why it is strategically important for the UK to retain it, and what is causing the difficulty.

"Our role is to ensure that BBSRC gets the best information and advice to ensure that the...profile of the UK's biosciences community is maintained and strengthened into the future. We have heard many anecdotal reports of skills shortages but in order to advise BBSRC on priorities for action we had to have a solid evidence base from which to work. The niche research skills within the four broad areas of concern that we have identified are crucial for UK bioscience because these areas underpin so many of the important scientific, social and economic impacts we see arising from bioscience research," said Professor Ottoline Leyser, BBSRC Bioscience Skills and Careers Strategy Panel chair.

BBSRC is involved in several actions to invest in the skills areas mentioned in the recommendations. In the industrial biotechnologies area BBSRC has prioritised funding for postgraduate studentships in Bioprocessing, as well as providing funding for research and training through several relevant schemes such as Industrial Impact Fellowships and the Industry Interchange programme.The security of future food supplies will rely on excellent plant science and agricultural research and BBSRC is currently embarking on a programme to ensure the supply of trained researchers in these areas. BBSRC is also involved in a major review of Systematics and Taxonomy in research, which is being led by the Natural Environment Research Council.

It is hoped that the report will be of interest to universities and other organisations involved in research training, as well as students, in order to help inform decisions about where to specialise. The report is also important for the wider UK research base - in particular, research organisations whose work relies on the employment of staff with niche expertise. It is vital that these research organisations plan ahead as existing staff reach retirement, or if they are planning to expand their work in a particular area. The report shows that, with niche areas of expertise, research organisations cannot rely on being able to pick up a new expert off-the-shelf; however there are many things which an organisation can do to help strengthen the supply of the skills it needs. The responses to the consultation demonstrate that many research organisations are being proactive in this regard, and the report is intended to share this good practice.


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