A technician’s insight into the lab industry : An interview with Jiteen Ahmed
A step forward for the technical community is a leap forward for science
On Team Science, every day is vital. Right now, life-saving research is going on in microbiology, oncology and immunology labs around the world, and the next generation of scientists are being tested and nurtured in university labs nationwide. However, the facilities they rely on do not run themselves and rely on technicians to keep facilities and experiments going. Here Jiteen Ahmed, Chair of the STEMed National Procurement Group, of the Laboratory Group at the Southern Universities Procurement Consortium (SUPC) and member of Lab Innovations’ advisory board, explains how the role of lab technicians is evolving.
Anyone who has worked in a laboratory is familiar with technicians; or at least the capacity in which they overlap with one’s own work. In reality, many people who have passed through teaching, research and clinical labs only see the support provided by the hard work of the incumbent technician. Their true role is extensive, holistic and multi-faceted.
Few people in a lab setting can impact proceedings in as many areas as technicians. While individual roles vary from lab to lab, they can be involved in anything from procurement of lab consumables and equipment to operating and maintaining instrumentation to supporting students in meeting key learning objectives. Furthermore, they support academics with safety and compliance inspections and record keeping and are responsible for handling hazardous material and waste disposal. Additionally, inventory management is often part of their remit. All this is before accounting for their direct research contributions.
Clearly, there’s plenty to do. However, as seen in many sectors such as medicine, construction and education, a shortage of skilled workers makes it hard for decision-makers to recruit the technical staff needed by the lab industry.
This issue is compounded for technicians specifically by the nature of the job: the practical experience acquired over long careers, for example quickly diagnosing instrumentation malfunction or knowing where to source an elusive chemical, is very difficult to replace at short notice.
Sharing the load
Procurement consortia, like the SUPC and others around the country, are working to reduce the burden placed on technicians. UPCs all over the UK are each producing framework agreements, running a competitive, compliant tender exercise which will provide lists of reliable, cost-effective suppliers.
The STEMed National Procurement Group, comprised of UPC contract managers, interdisciplinary technical and sustainability experts, coordinates the production of framework agreements to avoid redundancy and to take advantage of the economies of scale that come with larger numbers. Cost, supply, sustainability, ethics and fairness are all key considerations, as STEMed follows the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs).
The institution of UPCs has highlighted to the lab industry how valuable technicians’ technical knowledge is. The Technician Commitment is specifically targeted towards this goal and has been an instrumental initiative in helping to win recognition for the technician community. Launched in 2017 by Dr Kelly Vere MBE, the Technician Commitment has four pillars: visibility, recognition, career development and sustainability.
The Technician Commitment has led to technicians being credited in research papers both as named authors and for supporting roles; technical staff being able to apply for research grant funding such as the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) equipment funding; technical staff being recognised for teaching; apprentices being hired to safeguard the knowledge and experience of technical staff; technicians on institutional decision-making bodies and more.
The list of opportunities for technical staff is endless and the impact is wide reaching. For example, in 2019 Midlands Innovation (MI) was successful in obtaining the largest funding for technical staff, underpinned by partners including the eight MI Universities, Welcome, Rolls Royce, and with the largest funding portion coming from Research England (TALENT). The TALENT project itself has led to the formation of the UK Institute for Technical Skills and Strategy (UKITSS), which was one of the 16 recommendations from the TALENT National Policy Commission. Many universities are implementing the policy recommendations, which is having a tremendous effect on technical staff at universities and research institutes.
The technician pipeline
Simply elevating the status of technicians for its own sake is not the goal. Making practical use of that technical expertise benefits everyone on Team Science and, if we are to continue the progress made to maximise their contributions, the pipeline of new technicians will require close maintenance and support. Without technicians, there can be no teaching and therefore no research. Thus, the value of technical staff is very important to recognise and understand.
Presenting the laboratory technician pathway as an attractive career option is key here. T-levels, a new form of secondary education qualification, degree apprenticeships and work placements are all ways of attracting bright young people to technical roles and providing another source of talent for the scientific community.
Universities such as University of Liverpool have launched the Research Technical Professional pathway which supports specialist technical staff and research support staff. Pathways like these have led to opportunities such as the first technical specialist to be a professor: Professor Andrew Filby has been made a Professor of Practice in Enabling Technologies by Newcastle University.
And, like the rest of the scientific community, Lab Innovations is a key calendar event for technicians. In fact, given the holistic nature of their roles, the diverse opportunities for professional enrichment found there might be more relevant to technicians than anyone else.
There are many reasons why scientists flock to the NEC, Birmingham, when Lab Innovations comes to town. Some are practical: suppliers are there in person, ready to talk about any problems that have arisen in the lab. Laboratory instruments that save money through more sustainable consumption, or dramatically cut down time taken for experimental steps, are on display.
Some reasons are slightly higher-minded: hearing talks and presentations helps technicians to stay at the cutting-edge of technological advancements in their fields, updating their knowledge to improve the working lives of those around them. Networking opportunities are a key part of sharing that extensive practical experience.
Great progress has been made in the quest to empower technicians to contribute to their fullest potential; a technical specialist has been made professor, they are starting to share in decision-making processes and put their expertise to use to more greatly benefit the scientific world. I would venture to say that the way that our community values technicians reflects how we truly value teaching and research, how we value Team Science and the mission to improve the world through science.
With the Technician Commitment, UPCs and Lab Innovations maximising the potential of existing technicians and measures like T-levels, work placements and degree apprenticeships providing a tangible pipeline of fresh personnel, I am confident that the role of technicians is evolving; for the better.
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