7. A typical university research group consists of
one or more 'principal investigators' (PIs) (usually a member
of academic staff who leads the research and coordinates
the activities of the group), one or more postdoctoral researchers
(postdocs), and a number of PhD students. Postdocs conduct research
on a specific topic under the supervision and direction of the
PI. Often they are also involved in informal mentoring and instruction
of PhD students and undergraduate teaching.
8. Scientists and engineers working in universities
can be divided into two main groups: academic staff or academic-related
The first group are involved in teaching or research, or a combination
of the two. Academic-related staff are employed on a short-term
contractual basis and are principally involved in research. These
are known as contract research staff (CRS), or sometimes as postdocs
where the researcher has a doctorate.
9. In the traditional scientific career, a doctorate
would be followed by one or two postdoctoral positions, funded
by project grants. Often one of these positions would be overseas,
the USA in particular. After this, with the researcher in his
or her early 30s, an established permanent lectureship would be
sought. The researcher would then embrace teaching as part of
his/her duties and continue up the university career ladder, culminating
in some cases in a professorship.
10. For the lucky or talented few this is still the
case, but from the swelling numbers of CRS it is clear that postdocs
find it increasingly hard to find a permanent university position.
In 2000-01 there were around 140,000 teachers and researchers
working in UK HEIs. Of these, 43,000 were exclusively engaged
in research, of whom 41,000 were engaged on a fixed term contract.
This compares with 30,000 on fixed-term contracts in 1994-95.
The number of women CRS has risen faster than the number of men
(an increase of 58% against 20%). Across all disciplines in 1999-2000,
28% of full-time research staff were CRS but in science and engineering
it was 42%, and in the biosciences in particular the figure is
well over 50%.
Between 1994-95 and 2000-01 the number of permanent academic positions
increased but less quickly (from 67,000 to 76,000).
Only the catering industry employs a higher proportion of fixed
term contract workers than higher education.
11. In the title of this report we use the phrase
"short-term research contracts". Fixed-term contracts
can vary from one month to five years, with most between two and
three years. Our phrase embraces all such contract lengths.
12. Two thirds of a university's Funding Council
block grant is based on the amount and type of teaching it undertakes.
Hence it is teaching that largely determines the number of academic
staff appointed on open-ended contracts in most HEIs. Since the
block grant has failed to keep pace with the growth of research
project funding there are insufficient permanent positions for
CRS to apply for. At the same time as the growth in public sector
research, there has been a reduction in the number and size of
UK corporate research laboratories, reducing the options for a
researcher unable to secure a permanent academic position.
In an Institute of Physics survey conducted in 1999, only 20%
of researchers who commenced their first postdoc position between
1988 and 1993 had achieved a permanent faculty position, while
a further 20% had remained in higher education in fixed-term positions.