The UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) surveyed more than 800 technicians and laboratory assistants about their roles, careers and professional recognition (see go.nature.com/2fs6icb). The results reveal opportunities for change in the current ill-defined status of technical staff.
These non-faculty members professed to a blurring between technical and academic roles. Forty per cent of them teach and 60% supervise students. They need to have expertise in mathematics, statistics and computing, for example — skills that are crucial for research but hard to come by (see go.nature.com/2grqk10). Yet the progression opportunities and career pathways for technicians and academics are poles apart.
Academic career metrics such as publications and grants are not necessarily useful for technical staff. We found that 80% of those surveyed had contributed to research papers, although only 19% were first authors; 22% had written grants, but only 12% of respondents realized that they could apply for BBSRC funding. Moreover, 39% did not have an up-to-date job description and just 32% said that their role carried clear performance-related metrics.
Technical staff should not remain the unsung heroes of research. They need a well-defined career structure, clear job descriptions, appropriate performance metrics and an associated reward system. The BBSRC will seek to develop sustainable careers, in partnership with research organizations and according to the professional registration standards of the Science Council (www.sciencecouncil.org).