Select Committee on Science and Technology Eighth Report


113. There are welcome signs that the number of CRS will fall and their conditions will improve in the future but the fact is that the stimulus for significant change has come externally, in the form of an EU Directive. Sir Gareth Roberts' comments that universities would not change unless they were forced by the rule of law paints a depressing picture of their attitude towards their employees. It reflects poorly on all concerned that the problems caused by the increasing number of CRS were identified many years ago but so few of them have been solved.

114. It is hard to identify a single culprit for the continuing mistreatment of our research workforce, but top of the list must be a management culture in some of our research-intensive universities, which is callous and shortsighted. The universities are underfunded, but that is not an excuse for poor management. The Institute of Employment Studies regards the preponderance of short term contracts as "unnecessary and counterproductive. It is a product of history, a fragmentation of research capacity, and a failure of management to understand that they can manage in a different way".[218] Reviews, financial investment and changes in the law can only achieve so much without tackling the fundamental underlying attitudes and behaviours.

115. Second must be the ostrich-like behaviour of the Research Councils, who seem to see the research base as a production line operated by automatons. Although it is universities who employ the contract researchers, Research Councils must accept that CRS funded under their grants are their responsibility too. Although, some of the Research Councils have good policies in some areas, these are not enough. We recommend that Research Councils UK identify best practice among the Research Councils and harmonise their policies towards contract research staff.

116. Government has for too long sat back and left universities and the funding bodies to regulate themselves. The current crisis in science and engineering research careers has arisen in part because the Government has failed to recognise that the way in which it funds research in universities impacts on the employment of contract researchers. The situation demands an urgent rebalancing of the dual support system.

117. We are concerned that the Roberts Review, while making a valuable contribution in highlighting the problem of short-term research contracts and making the case for more funding, fails to contemplate radical change. We have been told too often that something is not possible: that not all contract researchers can aspire to permanent academic positions;[219] or that a research career track would not work.[220] Too many assumptions underlie claims such as these. We await the higher education review, more in the hope than in the expectation that it will provide some original and innovative thinking which tackles the management of research in universities.

118. Sir Gareth said that his advice to any young researcher was "You have got to position yourselves to be lucky in this world".[221] We would like a world where good researchers were successful on merit and less subject to an academic lottery.

218   Ev 73 Back

219   Ev 138 Back

220   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 5.18 Back

221   Q 161 Back

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