Select Committee on Science and Technology Eighth Report


73. We believe that despite the attention given to the issue of CRS in recent years, the problem remains. There a many interested parties and all will need to play a part.

The researchers

74. CRS have been criticised for not taking control of their careers and needing to take a more active interest in their own broad career development.[144] There must be concern that many look no further that their next contract and that little over half take up the formal training opportunities offered to them.[145] (Professor John Fisher of Leeds University argued that only this lack of foresight is the only thing that keeps CRS working as researchers.[146]) We have been told that few CRS have heard of the Concordat and the Research Careers Initiative (RCI), which demonstrates a lack of awareness of the wider issues associated with their profession. An Institute of Physics survey in 1999 found that there was lack of awareness among physics postdocs of their chances of securing a permanent faculty post.[147] In mitigation, it might be argued the system does not encourage career planning. Also, the lack of training in transferable skills makes it hard for researchers to move to other careers or professions. Contract researchers are taken for granted and badly treated but too many seem to embark on a career and hope for the best. They need to look ahead and evaluate their prospects. Ultimately, researchers must take responsibility for their own careers.

The principal investigators and senior management

75. There is a widespread feeling that the fate of young researchers lies in the hands of senior academics, yet management of CRS appears to be poor in many places, even when the university has made attempts to improve it. At Cambridge, we understand that the appraisal guidelines in the staff handbook are not implemented in many departments[148] and that few postdocs are encouraged to take up training opportunities.[149] We have heard that senior academics are not always sympathetic. Robert Bradburne told us:

    "too many times I have heard from our senior management 'that is not a problem. It did not affect us. We managed'. Because the people who are at the top now got through with this system, they do not realise that we are now 20/30 years on, mortgages have changed, career structures have changed, family structures have changed. If you want to be a successful scientist it is a lot harder to find that niche to become permanent".[150]

76. Sally Hunt of the AUT highlighted the management issue in her evidence: "though you may be an extremely good academic that of itself does not necessarily make you a good manager and there is need for better support, better training, better monitoring of what is going on at a more devolved level so that those at the bottom tiers, those coming through, are able to feel that they are being supported and developed". She also made the point that there are "very good academics out there who are struggling very hard with systems which are not enabling them to manage their staff well".[151]

77. While we have sympathy with academics who have a passion for their subject and simply want to do research, the truth is that they have a managerial responsibility to the researchers in their team. Too many, it seems, take the view that if they survived so can everyone else. Times have changed.

The universities

78. Universities are the principal employers of most CRS. They are represented nationally by Universities UK, formerly the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. A second body, the University and Colleges Employers' Association, "provides a framework within which representatives of institutions can discuss salaries, conditions of service, employee relations and all matters connected with the employment of staff and employees".[152]

79. Baroness Warwick of Universities UK said that universities had not been able to implement the Bett Report's recommendation to universities to reduce their use of fixed term contracts because of lack of funds. When asked how much it would cost, she responded that it had not been calculated.[153] Given that they had costed a £9.94 billion submission to the 2002 Spending Review at a time when the new Employment Regulations were known to be on the horizon, it is curious that Universities UK had not given more attention to this issue. The Wellcome Trust, the UK's largest funder of biomedical research, agrees that little progress can be made without more money for universities.[154] We share the view held by the AUT that the present system could well be costing universities as much money as it saves.[155] We find it hard to take seriously universities' claims that they cannot afford to reduce their use of short-term contracts, if they have not even calculated how much it would cost.

80. We have received much criticism of universities. Dr Clare Goodess laid the blame for her predicament on the universities for being "poor managers both of money and of people". She described how her department is bringing in £5 million a year, which, if pooled, could support a good team of researchers rather than having individuals tied to individual contracts.[156]

81. Baroness Warwick admitted that, even if given the money to eliminate fixed term contracts, universities would still not rule out using fixed-term contracts: "I do not think we can stop the problem associated with uncertain funding and the risks for an institution of seeking to use monies not for that purpose in order to try to shore up research teams or to provide resources for research teams where there is no prospect of future funding for them".[157] No-one is asking the universities to shore up research teams where there is no prospect of future funding. In the commercial world businesses have to make predictions about their future income and productivity, and plan accordingly. Universities reserve the right to look no further than the end of the current research grant and place the entire burden of risk onto researchers. CRS can be thankful that the Employment Regulations are forcing universities to act.

82. Baroness Warwick said that "I do not think it would be responsible of [universities] as employers to continue to employ people whom they know they cannot fund".[158] The important point is that there seem to be a large number of CRS who have had their contract renewed on numerous occasions. How long does it take to convince a university that it can be confident of an individual's ability to continue to attract funding and worthy of a permanent academic appointment? Five, 10, 15, 20 years?

83. A number of universities have recognised that there are benefits in reducing their dependency on research contracts. In June 2002, Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen announced that following negotiations with the local AUT branch, all staff currently on a fixed contract would be transferred to an open-ended contract on 1 August 2002. The university employed relatively few contract researchers. It ranked 88th in terms of the amount of Research Council funding received in 1999/2000, attracting £247,000,[159] so the decision will not have been a costly one to make. Dr David Briggs, Director of Human Resources at the university, says that this is intended to make it a more attractive employer but he does concede that this move would not be appropriate for all universities.[160]

84. The Wellcome Trust believes that the Prestigious Fellowship Scheme launched in June 2002 by the University of Wales College of Medicine is a useful model that allows short-term contracts to be embedded within institutional career paths.[161] The university has a scheme that aims "to provide a clear developmental plan and a supportive environment for College staff who are awarded ... fellowships from a recognised external body". On successful review, senior fellowship holders will have their posts made "on­going". Junior or intermediate fellowships holders will be encouraged and helped to apply for more senior fellowships or agree other career options.

85. The Institute of Transport Studies at the University of Leeds employs 35 research staff, of whom 34 are on temporary contracts.[162] Confident of its research income, the Institute places its more junior CRS on rolling two-year contracts, following a probationary period. More senior researchers are placed on open-ended contracts. At the same time it reports a healthy turnover of researchers. It recommends that all departments that are ranked 5 or 5* in the RAE adopt this policy.

86. We understand that Edinburgh University has attempted to restrict the use of short-term contracts. An agreement was reached with the unions whereby staff could only be employed on fixed-term contracts if one of eight criteria were met:[163]

  • Restricted funding;
  • Cover for absence;
  • Post created for a specific purpose;
  • Training or career development purposes;
  • Clearly established likelihood of a decrease in the continued funding for, or requirement for the work associated with the post in the foreseeable future;
  • Require recent experience outwith the university;
  • Rotational duties;
  • Appointee has retired or does no wish to commit to an open­ended contract.

87. The recent moves made by some HEIs are welcome and shows that they can take positive steps to reduce their reliance on short research contracts, such as offering permanent positions at the end of academic fellowships. The 2002 Spending Review announced the creation of a further 1,000 academic fellowships over five years, similar to those operated by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering.[164] We believe that the awarding of academic fellowships should be based on a commitment from the host institution, where possible, to provide permanent positions.

88. We are amazed that so little attention has been given by universities to the disproportionately high level of women CRS relative to permanent academic staff. Helen Walker suggests that women should always be present on selection and promotion panels to allow them to consider better "alternative lifestyles and working patterns".[165] This would certainly be start. The Higher Education Funding Council for England is undertaking an investigation into women in research, which will look at the reasons for the underrepresentation of women in higher education.[166] The Athena Project, part of the Equality Challenge Unit, aims to improve the advancement of women in science, engineering and technology.[167] Baroness Warwick spoke glowingly of the work of this Project, the progress of which we will watch with interest. We also eagerly await Baroness Greenfield's overdue report on the participation of women in science, engineering and technology. We welcome these initiatives and recommend that they address the disproportionately high number of women researchers working on short-term contracts.

89. We have been given no evidence to suggest that any attention has been given to ethnic monitoring of CRS. We are pleased to see that NESTA has funded the African-Carribean Network for Science and Technology to "advance the educational achievements and career aspirations of black youth within the fields of science, mathematics and technology".[168] We are aware that the Research Councils have monitored the ethnic profile of the postgraduates they fund.[169] We recommend that the Funding Councils and the Research Councils work together to establish the ethnic profile of contract researchers and to take action to tackle any bias or discrimination.

The Higher Education Funding Councils

90. The Higher Education Funding Councils fund the block grants to universities for teaching and the indirect costs of research. Although CRS are not generally funded from this source, HEIs may use their own funds to bridge two project grants (leading in some cases to researchers being employed on contracts as short as one month).[170] Although, the Funding Councils are not directly responsible, they do take an interest in staffing and management issues more generally and have addressed the CRS issue. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has funded the Contract Research On­line Survey. The first pilot ran in January and February 2002 involving 16 HEIs and reaching 3,000 CRS (around 10% of the total). The 2003 survey aims to double this figure. Sir Gareth Roberts told us that he will be heading the Funding Councils' review of research assessment, which he will be heading, will consider whether to withhold some funding if an HEI "cannot demonstrate that they are managing not just contract researchers but young research students, young lecturers, in a good way".[171] We are encouraged that the Funding Councils are considering mechanisms to reward universities with good employment practice.

91. The RAE, administered by the Funding Councils, has disadvantaged CRS, according to several witnesses. It is argued that CRS should be better represented in the RAE.[172] At present there is a disincentive to nurture independent researchers and academics to co-hold grants with CRSs. The Institute of Biology and its affiliated societies argue that the RAE actually encourages short-term contracts.[173] The Royal Geographic Society reports that the RAE may have contributed to the low status of CRS since they are invisible in the process.[174] The current review of higher education research assessment must ensure that whatever follows the Research Assessment Exercise does not disadvantage contract researchers.

92. Sir Gareth told us that the Funding Councils were considering whether to make an element of the research component of a university's block grant dependent on its good management of CRS, along similar lines to those that we suggested in our report on the Research Assessment Exercise.[175] Recognising that there may be higher costs from employing a lower proportion of CRS, the Institute of Biology and its affiliated societies suggest that departmental funding could depend on the proportion of CRS it employs.[176] The Funding Councils should consider using the proportion of researchers on fixed-term contracts in a department as a basis for calculating the university block grant.

The Research Councils

93. The Research Councils' grants provide the main basis for the employment of CRS, forming 38% research income to universities via the dual support system in 1999/2000.[177] But they take the view that the "terms of employment for these staff [employed under Research Council grants] are the responsibility of the employing institution and not the Research Councils".[178] The Research Councils vary in whether they allow CRS to apply for their grants in their own names. Some of them employ researchers directly, largely in their own institutes, and they vary in the extent to which they employ CRS. We invited the Research Councils to outline their policies and they are summarised in Table 1.

Table 1. Policy of Research Councils on CRS.[179]

Research Council CRS application for grantsResearchers employed by RC Features of grant
BBSRCNoContracts to be phased out with few exceptions Not provided
ESRCYesNo employed researchers Supports research centres for up to 15 years
EPSRCNoNo employed researchers Groups with a large portfolio of research grants will have these consolidated into a single grant of 5 years
PPARCNoNo employed researchers Offers 4-year rolling grants
NERCFrom next yearReduced from 23% in 1999 to 6% in 2002 Not provided
MRCYesOnly for new postdocs Over half of grants are for five years
CCLRCNot applicableLimited use of CRS Not provided

94. The University of Leeds argues that the Research Council grants should include overheads to cover training and career development.[180] Grants could also contribute to redundancy costs incurred by universities; the Research Councils accept that they may have to discuss with universities whether they should contribute to these costs.[181] The Institute of Employment Studies suggested to us that Research Councils, among other funders, should make good management of CRS a condition of a grant.[182]

95. We share Sir Gareth's disappointment at the lack of action on the part of the Research Councils. He cites the enlightened attitude displayed by the Wellcome Trust: "You will not find many people funded by Wellcome who are complaining too much".[183] Baroness Warwick felt that "the researchers themselves are answerable to the funders, so you have no flexibility in the way in which you use that money". She said that departments were using their Funding Council money as bridging loans to aid continuity.[184] Despite the announcement of training grants for postdocs in the 2002 Spending Review, there is more the Research Councils could be doing in this area. They should use evidence of coherent long-term research strategy as a basis for funding grant applications. We welcome the training grants for Research Council-funded CRS announced in the Spending Review but there is more that the Research Councils should be doing. It is not clear to us why the Research Councils cannot treat their grants as much as investments in people as in research. Their insistence on passing the buck to the universities is shameful.

96. The Royal Society of Chemistry told us of a scheme piloted by the EPSRC which provided "postdoctoral equivalents of the Research Councils Graduate Schools". We gather there has been no follow-up to this pilot, which seems a shame. The RSC advocates a voucher system whereby postdocs funded by the Research Councils can buy courses of approved training.[185] This idea of a training voucher system for postdocs has merit and should be pursued.

97. We were dismayed to hear Professor Ian Halliday, Chief Executive of PPARC, state in evidence to us in June 2002 " I think it is very dangerous ... to let people who do not have a permanent contract apply for grants, in particular grants to fund themselves".[186] His argument seemed to be that many CRS in his field were already employed on PPARC grants and that to give them another grant would be double funding. Surely this could easily be resolved. The point is that CRS should be able to apply for a grant to cover their next grant and not their existing one. His claim that few PPARC-funded CRS are affected is irrelevant: it is a point of principle. We note the view of the Royal Society that rather than allow all CRS to apply for Research Council grants, there should be more fellowships available, the holders of which could apply for grants.[187] We were heartened that Professor Halliday has been discussing with universities how to formalise the position of long-term CRS.[188] We urge the Research Councils to make their grants dependent on good practice, as the Roberts Review recommends.[189] Sally Hunt of the AUT said the Research Councils "are actively undermining a significant proportion of the academic community in this country to an extent that it is going to seriously impact on the economic security of this country in the next five or ten years".[190] To prevent contract researchers, particularly the more senior ones, from applying for Research Council grants is demeaning and stifles good ideas. If one Research Council can allow this then they all can. We recommend that all the Research Councils allow contract researchers to apply for their grants without delay.

98. Research Councils UK tells us that the Research Councils "allow grant applicants to seek funds to meet the higher costs of a more experienced researcher where the research project requires it".[191] This may be possible in theory but CRS have described to us how by reaching a high grade they have priced themselves out a job. This suggests that the Research Councils are less than keen to pay the extra cost of experienced researchers. We agree with Scientists for Labour when they say that "funding bodies, in partnership with employers, should work to ensure that, where appropriate, funding for projects is sufficient to cover the salaries of experienced scientists and not simply newly qualified post­doctoral researchers".[192] The continued excellence of the science base requires that we fund the best people available for the duration of a grant. We recommend that the Research Councils reassess their practices to ensure that their grants fund the best people available and not the cheapest.

99. Prospect argues that publicly funded research contracts should include a component earmarked for long-term research.[193] This is an interesting idea but any funds allocated in this manner would have to be monitored.


100. Ultimately the responsibility for funding the researchers in universities lies with Government. It sets the amount of, and the balance between, funding streams. Universities UK's claim that universities are suffering severe financial problems has been supported by the Cross-Cutting Review of Science and Research.[194] Dr John Taylor, Director General of the Research Councils, said in evidence to us in May 2002 that "There is a serious level of under funding".[195] It has been reported that a number of well known research-intensive universities, such as University College London, are running large deficits.[196] Mr Andrew Pike of NATFHE told us that "successive governments are responsible also and to blame for the exploitation that many contract researchers will tell you about".[197]

101. We were pleased to note that the Spending Review 2002 announced that Research Councils will pay a higher proportion of indirect costs associated with the research funded by their grants and that the research budget of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. This should ease (but not solve) the financial problems that exacerbate the CRS issue. We fail to understand, however, why this will not be introduced until 2005-06 since the Transparency Review has proved that HEIs are failing to recover the full costs of externally funded research. We are sympathetic to the view expressed by Save British Science that universities have too few unencumbered funds to allow them to manage their research with discretion.[198] If the Funding Council budget for research is maintained then there should be more flexible funds available for the development of new fields of research in the HEIs and/or for bridging funding between grants to allow stability of the research group - provided it is successful and productive. Research Council funding, regardless of the level of overheads it pays, is directed and gives universities little room to manouevre in the way it employs its staff. The anticipated higher education budget must provide more money for research and at least start to rebalance the dual support system.

102. We are pleased that the modest submission to our inquiry from the DTI and DfES recognised that "we" should not take researchers for granted.[199] Increases in graduate starting salaries in other professions have made an academic scientific career less competitive. However, evidence from CRS sends out a clear message: they do not expect to be paid as much as City analysts for something they love doing. It is our impression that salary levels are a factor in the disillusionment of many CRS but less of an issue than job security for many.[200] This is supported by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council's study on Academic Careers in Scotland.[201] We note that one of our witnesses, Matt Hill, took a pay cut when he left university for industry.[202] The salary increases for researchers announced in the Spending Review are welcome, but the Government must realise that unless it funds measures to give CRS a rewarding and secure career, a mere pay rise will not be enough stop Britain's best researchers turning their backs on science and engineering or on the UK.

144   Ev 124-125 Back

145   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 5.25 Back

146   Ev 63 Back

147   Ev 74 Back

148   Ev 106 Back

149   Ev 106 Back

150   Q 87 Back

151   Q 100 Back

152   See Back

153   Q 111-112 Back

154   Ev 173 Back

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

156   Q 39 Back

157   Q 14 Back

158   Q 127 Back

159   Data supplied by the Office of Science and Technology Back

160   Ev 56 Back

161   Ev 172 Back

162   Ev 92 Back

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

164   Ev 138-139 Back

165   Memorandum from Dr Helen Walker [not printed] Back

166   Ev 5 Back

167   STC 56 Back

168 Back

169 Back

170   Ev 76 Back

171   Q 137 Back

172   Ev 64 Back

173   Ev 71 Back

174   Ev 135 Back

175   Second Report of Science and Technology Committee, Session 2001-02, The Research Assessment Exercise, HC 507, para 87 Back

176   Ev 71 Back

177   Data supplied by the Office of Science and Technology Back

178   Ev 119 Back

179   The data in the table were supplied at our request - see Ev 122-124. 'Not provided' indicates that no information was presented to the Committee. Back

180   Ev 63 Back

181   Ev 121 Back

182   Ev 73 Back

183   Q 146 Back

184   Q 113 Back

185   Ev 143 Back

186   Science and Technology Committee, Minutes of evidence, Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, 26 June 2002, Q 55 Back

187   Ev 140 Back

188   Science and Technology Committee, Minutes of evidence, Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, 26 June 2002, Q 54 Back

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

190   Q 106 Back

191   Ev 123 Back

192   Ev 151 Back

193   Ev 114 Back

194   HM Treasury, Department for Education and Skills, Office of Science and Technology and Department of Trade and Industry. Cross-Cutting Review of Science and Research. Final report, March 2002. Back

195   Eighth Report of Science and Technology Committee, Session 2001-02, The Work of the Office of Science and Technology, HC 860, Q 29 Back

196   Palace coup rocks University College, The Guardian, 2 August 2002. Back

197   Q 100 Back

198   Ev 149 Back

199   Ev 25-26 Back

200   Ev 146 Back

201   Memorandum from Dr DL Clements [not printed] Back

202   Q 73 Back

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