Select Committee on Science and Technology Eighth Report




13. A series of short-term research contracts for a young postdoc is considered by many to be a positive thing. The Roberts Review, a Government-commissioned report on the supply of science, engineering and technology skills, sees this as similar to the formal job rotation seen in many industrial graduate training schemes or in medicine.[11] Many would consider it unhealthy for a researcher to remain in the same institution for the first part of his or her career. Researchers who do short contracts abroad benefit from an international perspective and broaden their experience. The postdoc system allows time to assess whether the individual is capable of conducting independent research.[12] The system also ensures regular injections of 'new blood',[13] although some argue that there would still be a reasonable level of staff turnover if all researchers were appointed on open-ended contracts.[14] Increased researcher mobility also ensures that there are large numbers of openings available to new postdocs. The John Innes Centre at Norwich claims the preponderance of short-term contracts leads to a 'vibrant research environment' because of high staff turnover.[15] We note that the CRS at the Centre do not share the enthusiasm of their management for the present system.[16]


14. The employing university benefits from short-term contracts in that it employs a researcher only for the duration of the external research grant. It need make no predictions about its ability to attract funding for future research for which an individual researcher is qualified. Put simply, the university places all the risk over its future research income onto the researcher. At a time when universities face a range of financial pressures, employing most of its researchers on a contract is an attractive option.


15. There is an argument that a high proportion of CRS in a department enhances its research output. There is certainly a strong and positive association between the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) ranking of a university and the proportion of CRS that it employs.[17] Yet it may be that this merely reflects top institutions' ability to attract project funding and researchers on short contracts. Scientists for Labour believes that the funding mechanisms that lead to a large number of short-term contracts have been "relatively successful in generating high quantity and quality research, which is value for money".[18]


16. Disadvantages can be grouped into those suffered by the individual researcher, those experienced by the institution, and the negative impact on the research being conducted.


Career progression

17. Researchers, often some of the most active in a department, can be on short contracts for over 20 years.[19] Senior CRS become increasingly expensive to hire as they progress up the pay scales and may be priced out of the market.[20] If they are taken on, it can be for a shorter period than for the duration of the research grant which may not provide for a CRS above a certain grade.[21] Dr Bryn Jones from Nottingham University told us that he had accepted a job at a lower grade to his previous job to allow him sufficient time to get results and prove his capabilities as a researcher.[22] As one researcher has put it, "I have qualified myself out of employment and security".[23]

18. The lack of continuity is the most widespread complaint among CRS. Professor Colin Bryson, a researcher into employment in higher education at Nottingham Trent University, argues that retention from one contract to the next is based more on chance than merit, exacerbating the frustration among CRS.[24] Drs Robson and Allison from the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research in Aberystwyth claim that it is not necessarily just the high-calibre scientists who get lectureships, merely those whose careers have more readily facilitated such an appointment.[25] There is concern that recruitment decisions are largely reliant on publication record, which is not always a good indicator of ability.[26] Dr David Stevenson, a CRS at the University of Leicester, points out that the continuation of fixed contracts beyond the early stages of a career prevents the consolidation of a chosen career path: "Unless you can get a lectureship ... you are basically stuck with no career ... Once you reach 30 you are in serious trouble."[27] Matt Hill, a former CRS at Bradford Univerity, told us his career "is one that I have completely designed myself. I have gritted my teeth and got on with it".[28] The lack of continuity may affect the CRS's ability to publish their work since they may be forced to move to a new research post at a time when a research project is close to fruition.[29]

19. CRS are often in a position where they have to take what contract is offered to them by their department and are denied the opportunity to develop expertise in a particular field. Dr John Sawyer, a postdoc at Imperial College, London said that while he had papers in five or six different areas, " I do not have a considerable publication list in one area. Whilst that can be argued to be a good thing, at the same time I cannot ever be a reputable person on a particular topic".[30] Matt Hill said "Perhaps because I was not able to become specialised through searching around for the next contract, that was detrimental to my successfully winning a permanent contract".[31]

20. Many contract researchers have complained about their inability to apply for Research Council grants, saying that this prevents them from taking control of their careers and leaves them open to abuse by senior academics.[32] CRS may seek a "tame" academic who will agree to sign the grant application but may be wary of bringing an idea to an academic for fear of losing credit for it.[33] The system makes CRS dependent on senior academics and prevents young researchers from getting experience of project management.[34] Dr John Sawyer felt that "a short term contract means I do what someone else wants to do, I have no opportunity to do what I want to do or even suggest what I want to do".[35] Dr Clare Goodess, who has been on a succession of contracts for 20 years at the University of East Anglia, complained that she is coordinating a _2 million project funded by the European Union, but she cannot even be named on a £30,000 Research Council grant.[36]

Inadequate training

21. Although the Roberts Review compares the postdoc system to graduate training schemes in industry, there is concern that little training is given, either to enhance an individual's role as a researcher and a potential teacher and university administrator, or to develop more general transferable skills that would enable CRS to move easily into other professions, such as staff and resource management.[37] The Roberts Review presents evidence that the amount of training received by postdocs is in decline.[38] The University of Leeds concedes that there is little incentive to provide training beyond that required for the duration of the contract.[39] Robert Patten from Imperial College told us that "The training that is available tends to be part of the university standard personnel training packages, nothing too specific".[40] Physics postdocs who moved into industry have complained of a mismatch between the skills they acquired as postdocs and those that are required by the private sector.[41] Dr Christine Knott from Imperial College feels that CRS do acquire transferable skills but that there should be some means for gaining accreditation for these to make it easier to move to another career.[42]


22. Starting salaries for postdocs have remained unchanged in real terms over the past 15 years, while the average figure for all graduates has risen substantially in this period.[43] Most researchers are driven by intellectual curiosity rather than the desire for high financial reward, yet many feel undervalued and face difficulties as a result of their low pay.[44] We have heard that CRS can be severely disadvantaged in terms of pension arrangements, performance-related pay or other benefits.[45] Researchers may have to face working for a reduced salary funded from 'soft money' while awaiting the results of a grant application. Moving from contract to contract can hamper salary progression. Robert Patten told us "For a period of about five years I was stuck at the same grade due to jumping from one short-term contract to another and not being part of an incremental process".[46] In 1998 NATFHE compared the spending power of academic staff in 15 countries: the UK came tenth.[47] The 2002 Spending Review will increase postdoctoral salaries by £4,000 per year.[48]

23. We were told that many CRS do not receive a redundancy payment. Sir Gareth was under the impression that "most universities have now abandoned that redundancy waiver that we talked about. Certainly the ones that I am associated with have abandoned that some time ago".[49] He seemed shocked by the experiences of the CRS who gave evidence to us who had to sign redundancy waivers. We have no reason to believe they were not representative.

Sex discrimination

24. While women are underrepresented at senior levels in academia (the Higher Education Statistics Agency estimated in 2000 that 8.9% of professors in science subjects in UK universities were women[50]), 44% of CRS are women.[51] In higher education, women are more likely than men to be working on a fixed term contract.[52] In 2000-01 51% of all women academic staff were on fixed term contracts against 44% of men.[53] The imbalance has deteriorated in recent years: between 1994-95 and 2000-01 the number of CRS rose by 34% but the increase for women was 58%. This suggests discrimination although it could reflect a welcome influx of women into academia in recent years, since newer recruits are more likely to be employed on a fixed-term contract. Dr Elizabeth Griffin, a former postdoc at Cambridge University, thinks that there is an entrenched attitude that " women [are] more suitable for short­term contracts than for the high road of respectable careers" and that since a career on a succession of contracts is not viable, women are "forced out by the short-term contract system".[54]

25. Sally Hunt from the AUT reports that some women CRS dare not tell their boss that they are pregnant and some find that they have no job to return to after the birth as the "type of research has magically changed".[55] The evidence we have received suggests that most women CRS qualify for maternity pay, on the same basis as permanently employed staff. However, given that CRS move from institution to institution, frequently they do not qualify since women will not have been employed at one place for long enough.[56] Although not exclusively a problem for women, we have heard that there are few mechanisms for re-entry into research after a career break.[57]

26. Universities UK said at the oral evidence session that they had no data on the availability of maternity leave nor on why women were more likely to work as a contract researcher and less likely to be employed indefinitely. Professor Breakwell felt that it might reflect a recent influx of women into scientific research and that there were more jobs available at the lower grades.[58] In writing, after appearing before us, Universities UK identified four further areas which militate against the progression of women researchers from fixed term onto open-ended contracts:[59]

  • Mobility: domestic and caring responsibilities inhibit women from moving to where the best jobs are available.
  • Grant allocation: women are just as likely to be successful in having their grant applications funded, but they make fewer applications.
  • Organisational culture: women's achievements do not get the same level of recognition as men's.
  • Reduction in reputation capital: researchers' careers are built on reputation and career breaks will reduce publication output and weaken their ability to establish networks in their field.


27. According to Professor Colin Taylor from Cambridge University, the short-term contract leaves staff "vulnerable to exploitation by host departments".[60] Some senior academics appear to think that large numbers of CRS are a good thing as "it ensures there are plenty of fish in the pool to select from".[61] It has also been reported to us that employing researchers on a contract places pressure on them to complete research projects in unrealistic time periods.[62] We have heard that the system alienates CRS, who become disengaged and therefore disinclined to get involved in the life of the department.[63]

28. A 1999 survey found that 60% of young British researchers felt that they did not receive full credit for the research they undertook.[64] It seems that the principal investigator (PI), who is responsible for the grant and the management of the CRS funded by that grant, is also the person who receives the credit for the success of the research.[65] Postdocs have complained to us that they have no ownership over the system in which they work.[66] Dr Clare Goodess fears that academic staff "deliberately use fixed term contracts in order exert control" over CRS.[67]


29. The lack of job security may make it difficult to get a mortgage and the need to keep moving can have a detrimental effect on the family and on a spouse or partner's career. Even if a contract researcher can get a mortgage, there are large costs associated with buying and selling a house every time a new contract necessitates a geographical move.[68] Mike Ahern, a new CRS, told us that he was fortunate that he did not have a family or a mortgage but if he did he would not be in academia.[69] One researcher tells us that his ageing parents would like to move closer to him but dare not risk him having to relocate.[70] The lack of security has an effect on morale. Mike Ahern said he was about to embark on his fourth contract inside 18 months and he had found the experience "pretty demoralising".[71] Amicus felt that short-term contract employment had "a detrimental effect on the health and well being of researchers and support staff".[72]



30. Research timescales cannot always be easily mapped onto the duration of a grant. [73] Given a three-year grant, say, there is no guarantee that the research will be completed in this period. The uncertainty faced by CRS means that long before either the external funding has run out or the research has been completed, they will probably be seeking new employment. This will be a distraction from their research. The research project is likely to suffer from the loss of key personnel at critical times, in some cases making it impossible to proceed with the project, leaving the research 'in limbo'.[74] We have been told of a CRS who left a post having generated data worth £120,000. The data remain untouched.[75]

31. It may take six months of a three-year grant for a new CRS to settle into a new location. CRS are likely to start applying for the next grant 12 months before the end of their contracts. If staff move when there are only a few months to run on the grant, the university will find it difficult or impossible to recruit a replacement for the short time remaining. A survey of CRS at the John Innes Centre in Norwich found that 46% started looking for a new position a year before their contracts ran out and a further 40% were constantly looking for a new job.[76]

Research management

32. The lack of career structure has implications for the research being undertaken. As Professor Colin Taylor points out, while the current system may be a good way of identifying the research leaders of the future, technical and other support staff on permanent contracts are becoming a thing of the past, eroding an important part of the management structure. [77] There is a danger that the research is largely being conducted by inexperienced researchers.[78]

Subject shortages

33. The high proportion of CRS may cause particular problems in less popular, and so less well funded disciplines. Fewer posts in a field can mean that suitable positions can be harder to come by, with the result that discontinuity in employment is more of a problem. Young researchers may be dissuaded from entering certain subject areas, such as systematics.[79]

Loss of researchers

34. It is suggested that the CRS system leaves researchers so disenchanted that they abandon their research careers. While there has been little attempt to measure the loss of researchers by research funders and universities, few doubt that this occurs. We took evidence from Matt Hill, who had 13 contracts over nine years before moving to industry, despite a 22% cut in wages. He told us:

The Association of Researchers in Medicine and Science suggests that CRS will jump at the first opportunity of a permanent job, even if it is outside research or in a post-1992 university where the scope for research is more limited.[81]

35. There may be an assumption that there is healthy natural selection and that the system prunes away the less able, that is 'if you are good enough you'll get on all right'. The evidence we have received from CRS suggests otherwise.[82] Dr Robert Bradburne has left research after only two years as a CRS:

     "I have become increasingly fed up with being told by everyone ... that I am too good to leave bench science, and I turn around to them and say 'Fine, give me a job then' and they cannot. They can say 'Well I am sure we can find you some funding for the next three years'. Fine. Then what do I have at the end of it? No guarantee at all, even though I might be the best scientist in the world".[83]

As with many other professions it is the most able who are able to find alternative careers. This is supported by evidence showing that fewer graduates with firsts or 2.1s are continuing in science, suggesting that it has become a less attractive career option.[84]

36. We have heard that it is difficult to fill some CRS positions[85] which suggests that researchers are leaving despite a demand for their services or that potential new young researchers are not coming forward. A failure to fill research posts is likely to hamper the research being undertaken. Dr John Sawyer from Imperial College told us that there was no shortage of funding in his department, just a shortage of willing candidates.[86] The loss of researchers can impact on the science base. As Dr Robert Bradburne put it:

    "Short term researchers are the ones who do the work. The group leaders are usually so tied up fighting for money that they do not do much science any more, or a lot of them do not because they cannot. People like us are the ones who end up doing the science. If you scare those people away ... then simply you are not going to get the high quality science done".[87]

High turnover

37. The lack of continuity of staffing may slow research progress. At Cambridge University, in 2001, 40% of the postdocs employed by the university were appointed that year.[88] Research Council data show that turnover is two to three times higher for CRS than for researchers on permanent contracts.[89] As Dr Christine Knott points out, the PI will have to invest time in recruiting and training new researchers, which can be a complete waste of time if the CRS moves on after a time for a longer appointment.[90] If a researcher moves to a new position working in a new field, the training investment will be greater with a consequent loss of research efficiency.[91]


38. The need to publish in order to stay employed encourages CRS to select projects in which the likelihood of rapid publication is high. Thus the system encourages short-termism, stimulating "a brain-drain from risky to safe research areas".[92] We have been told that the contract research system focuses the attention on short-term goals and creates instability that hampers scientific advances that usually require a long-term commitment to research.[93] Dr Eva Link, formerly of University College, London, told us:

    "If you have a two or three or one year contract it is absolutely impossible for young people to develop their skills, to develop their intellectual capacity and become independent and, of course, for senior people who are employed on short term contracts: it is absolutely killing the system of long term research".[94]


39. In some areas of research recruitment is difficult and it is hard to retain good staff.[95] CRS are always on the lookout for their next contract or a permanent position outside research. The rules of some Research Councils on CRS can force them to move on. We have learnt of a researcher who was not eligible to apply for a grant because there were only three months left on his contract and no-one was available to front a bid from the university. He found another institution where there was a cooperative academic, made an application, and secured the grant.[96] The high turnover of CRS must place a huge administrative burden and cost on the university.[97] A large proportion of the time of university personnel departments is devoted to CRS. Academics' time must be consumed equally wastefully.

11   HM Treasury, SET for success: The supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills. (Report of Sir Gareth Roberts' Review), April 2002, para 5.12 Back

12   Ev 156 Back

13   Ev 51 Back

14   Ev 55 Back

15   Ev 75 Back

16   Ev 109-110 Back

17   Ev 104 Back

18   Ev 150 Back

19   Ev 156, Q32 Back

20   Ev 157-158 Back

21   Ev 146, 110 Back

22   Ev 77 Back

23   Memorandum from Frances Moore, University of Oxford [not printed] Back

24   Ev 54 Back

25   Ev 127 Back

26   Ev 109-110 Back

27   Ev 154 Back

28   Q 78 Back

29   Memorandum from Susan Cooper [not printed] Back

30   Q 22 Back

31   Q 79 Back

32   Ev 155 Back

33   Ev 105 Back

34   Ev 94 Back

35   Q 20 Back

36   Q 47 Back

37   HM Treasury, SET for success: The supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills. (Report of Sir Gareth Roberts' Review), April 2002, figure 5.3. Back

38   HM Treasury, SET for success: The supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills. (Report of Sir Gareth Roberts' Review), April 2002, para 5.24. Back

39   Ev 62 Back

40   Q 49 Back

41   Ev 74 Back

42   Memorandum from Dr Christine Knott [not printed] Back

43   HM Treasury, SET for success: The supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills. (Report of Sir Gareth Roberts' Review), April 2002, para 5.29. Back

44   Ev 107 Back

45   Ev 116 Back

46   Q 50 Back

47   Ev 100-101 Back

48   HM Treasury, 2002 Spending Review, Cm 5570, p 144 Back

49   Q 138 Back

50   Fifth Report of the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2001-02, Government Funding of the Scientific Learned Societies, HC 774­I, para 87 Back

51   Ev 173 Back

52   Ev 38 Back

53   Ev 49 Back

54   Ev 66 Back

55   Q 99 Back

56   Supplementary memorandum from the Association of University Teachers [not printed] Back

57   Ev 107 Back

58   Q 116 Back

59   Ev 173 Back

60   Ev 156 Back

61   Ev 66 Back

62   Memorandum from Dr Diane Wensley [not printed] Back

63   Ev 93 Back

64   Nature (1999), 397, 640-641 Back

65   Ev 105, 135 Back

66   Ev 105 Back

67   Ev 64 Back

68   Ev 130 Back

69   Q 8 Back

70   Memorandum from Laurence Jones [not printed] Back

71   Q 5, 7 Back

72   Memorandum from Amicus-MSF Section [not printed] Back

73   Ev 80 Back

74   Ev 134, Memorandum from the Engineering Professors' Council [not printed] Back

75   Memorandum from the Dr DL Clements [not printed] Back

76   Ev 109 Back

77   Ev 156 Back

78   Ev 157-158 Back

79   Memorandum from the Systematics Association [not printed] Back

80   Q 70 Back

81   Ev 33-34 Back

82   Ev 110, 111 Back

83   Q 71 Back

84   Ev 70 Back

85   Ev 157 Back

86   Q 10 Back

87   Q 75 Back

88   Ev 104 Back

89   Ev 116-117 Back

90   Memorandum from Dr Christine Knott [not printed] Back

91   Ev 76 Back

92   Ev 106 Back

93   Memorandum from Dr D Fletcher-Holmes and Ms J Ewins [not printed], Ev 114 Back

94   Q 89 Back

95   Ev 115, Q 10 Back

96   Ev 80 Back

97   Ev 92, 93 Back

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Prepared 20 November 2002