Select Committee on Science and Technology Eighth Report


103. To resolve the problem of huge numbers of research staff working on short contracts, it is clear to us that university management must change radically, not just at the top level but in the way individual departments and research teams are managed.

104. Few of the inquiry's submissions to the inquiry included a judgement on what would be the right proportion of researchers on short-term contracts, although most considered it to be too high. The Systematics Society believes that no more than half of researchers should be on fixed-term contracts (and preferable only 25%).[203] The Royal Geographic Society argues that only 25-30% of researchers should be CRS[204] while Save British Science puts the figure at 30% on the basis that when the figure was this in the past no problems were reported.[205] The AUT insists that all researchers should be on permanent contracts with only a few exceptions.[206] Jonathan Bates, from Swindon, argues that the focus should not be on the proportion of CRS but on getting the right level of researcher turnover to maintain a healthy research community.[207] Others suggest that it is the numbers of senior CRS that is the principal problem.[208] Dr Helen Walker, now on an open-ended contract at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory after 15 years as a contract researcher, argues that it depends on the research environment and that while universities may need a higher percentage of CRS, research laboratories need more permanent staff. The proportion of researchers working on fixed-term contracts is too high. The starting point for any policy should be to reduce this proportion.

105. The larger research groups should engage in better financial planning to ensure continuity of their research programmes and to avoid the use of excessive use of short-term contracts. They should be supported in this by the Funding Councils and the Research Councils.

106. The new Employment Regulations and the JNCHES agreement should decrease the numbers of researchers on fixed-term contracts but this must not be seen as the only criterion for success. It is clear to us that a research career needs to provide a coherent path from PhD to professorship that does not involve the quantum leap from lowly ranked and insecure contract research to the cosy blanket of academic permanence. We have been told how the research base needs to be dynamic, bringing in new blood and new ideas. Dr Alan Williams of the AUT argues that if this is the case, it is true for all tiers in the research hierarchy, including senior academics on permanent contracts.[209] Cambridge postdocs argue for a restructuring of all academic employment with an element of contract funding in all academics' salaries.[210] We must end the damaging distinction between permanently employed academics and CRS. We must aim for security for all higher education staff even if this means that none is entitled to a job for life.

107. We were astonished to hear Baroness Warwick say "I do not think anybody believes that every contract research member of staff either wants to or should become a permanent member of staff".[211] Not every CRS wants to be employed permanently in one institution but this is not the same as not wanting to be employed on an open-ended contract. The CRS who do move on would still like the assurance of an open-ended contract so that they can plan ahead and move on at a time that suits their career - and their family if they have one - and not when their contract is up.

108. A radical argument, although not one with which we are sympathetic, is that there is no place in academia for open-ended contracts. It maintains that the problem for CRS is not the fact that their contract is fixed term but that there are others who are on open-ended contracts. Some believe that a better alternative would be 5-10 year rolling contracts for all researchers and teachers in HEIs or at least a blurring of the distinction between CRS and permanently employed academics.[212] This inquiry is focused on the problems created by huge numbers of contract researchers but it is clear to us that a resolution must embrace all academic staff employed in higher education.

109. The Association of Research Centres in the Social Sciences advocates the creation of autonomous research centres in which better management could flourish.[213] The Institute of Employment Studies makes a similar point. It argues that the use of short-term research contracts can be reduced "if research is concentrated in centres which have sufficient critical mass to support scientific endeavour, and which can invest inappropriate facilities and staff development".[214] This has its attractions but we believe - and we have made clear before - that university teaching benefits from a close association with research.[215] Any reorganisation along these lines would need to recognise this.

110. Colin Bryson argues that the way forward is to break the direct link between the research grant and the employment of the researchers.[216] A research group would operate as a unit, funded by multiple grants. This would allow more flexibility in labour division and, should the grant income decline, retention would be based on an individual's ability rather than which individual's contract had come to an end.[217] Grants are usually restricted to a particular project for which they are awarded and look to get results from it. Funders would therefore probably object to their money being diverted into other projects but could be asked to consider this if the second project is closely related.

111. Another option would be to decouple researchers and research group leaders. Researchers could provide research services for different projects. A department could charge the services provided by such people to a project as an overhead, as used to be the case when HEIs had permanent technical staff.

112. We have received ideas on how to remodel the management of research in our universities. We now need a Government that will listen to them and is bold enough to act.

203   Memorandum from the Systematics Association [not printed] Back

204   Ev 135 Back

205   Ev 149 Back

206   Ev 40 Back

207   Ev 52 Back

208   Memorandum from Roger Flower [not printed] Back

209   Q 96 Back

210   Ev 108 Back

211   Q 130 Back

212   Ev 107, 94 Back

213   Ev 32 Back

214   Ev 73 Back

215   Second Report of Science and Technology Committee, Session 2001-02, The Research Assessment Exercise, HC 507, para 51 Back

216   Ev 55 Back

217   Ev 113 Back

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