Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Academy of Medical Sciences


  The Academy of Medical Sciences was established in 1998 to promote medical sciences across traditional disciplinary boundaries; it is the only organisation representing the wide spectrum of both scientists and clinicians in a single body. Its mission is "translating medical science into clinical practice for patient benefit".

  In October 2000, the Academy of Medical Sciences set up a Working Group (joint chairmanship of Professors Patricia Jacobs and Jim Smith) to look at the problems associated with the careers available to non-clinical scientists working in a medical research environment in the UK. Their Report, Non-Clinical Scientists on Short-Term Contracts in Medical Research,published in February 2002, forms the basis of the present response to the Science & Technology Committee.

  The Academy's focus on non-clinical researchers on short-term contract covered technicians, research assistants and post-doctoral research workers employed on contracts with a duration of 5 years or less (excluding principal, senior and career research fellows who are in receipt of their own research grants). The Working Group gathered evidence about the management of contract research workers from a sample of 28 universities and 5 research institutes, with additional focus groups constituted to identify and clarify issues.

Q1:  Does the preponderance of short-term research contracts really matter? Why?

  Contract research workers play a very important role in medical research. It is increasingly the case that effective research is produced by teams, bringing together a variety of specialist skills, rather than by exceptional individuals working largely on their own. Indeed, many laboratory-based research projects are effectively carried out by contract research workers under the general direction of the Principal Investigator. The knowledge, commitment and motivation of every member of the team are vital in delivering successful results. Contract research workers also play a crucial role in the infrastructure of scientific research by providing education and training for PhD students and post-doctoral employees. However, it is widely acknowledged that the employment arrangements for this important tier of scientific research workers are anachronistic when compared with modern employment practices in other areas of work, are characterised by an ad hoc and short-term approach, and fail to deliver the best outcomes for the research workers concerned or for UK science as a whole.

  The main problems for contract research workers identified by our Working Group are:

    —  Job insecurity;

    —  Lack of adequate career structure;

    —  Absence of adequate careers advice;

    —  Lack of sufficient recognition and status;

    —  Remuneration.

  These issues are addressed in further detail in the remainder of our response, together with suggestions for improvement.


  The degree of job insecurity experienced by research workers on short-term contracts (both real and perceived) is a major problem affecting both recruitment and retention. Many contracts last only two years and when one contract ends there is no guarantee of future employment. Retirement of a Principal Investigator can precipitate unemployment for an entire research team. To the extent that age and experience attract higher rates of pay, prospects for continuing employment can decline, as the worker becomes more expensive to hire by comparison with younger colleagues. The availability of tenured positions for those research workers not running their own independent research projects is extremely limited. Job insecurity and the short-term nature of their employment makes it difficult for contract research workers to take on the kind of long-term financial commitments—for example house-purchase—which are routinely available to those with apparently more secure employment prospects.

  Lack of adequate career structure for contract research workers is closely related to the problem of job insecurity. For the most part, once one contract ends, the research worker effectively has to begin again. They may have little control over their prospects for re-employment in the same institution or same locality, little information on what those prospects are and limited scope for seeking employment elsewhere in time to ensure continuity of employment. With notable exceptions, they are denied the opportunity to apply for their own research grants.

  Lack of sufficient recognition and status is also generally acknowledged as a problem for contract research workers. Problems of remuneration are hard to assess. University salary scales are generally low in comparison with those available to similarly qualified individuals in other professions. Where there is legitimate concern, however, is in the limited ability of many contract research workers to achieve the kinds of promotion which are available to their peers outside the university environment, together with greater job security and progressive salary increases.

  What are the implications if the position of contract research workers is improved? The benefits to be derived from improvements in the careers available include the ability to attract more young people into scientific careers, to attract and retain research staff of the highest quality, to encourage personal development and acquisition of skills and to increase motivation. By delivering better career prospects for contract research workers—both while they are engaged in this work and in their later careers—these changes will also help to modernise the infrastructure on which future development of the UK science base depends.

Q4:  What would be the right balance between contract and permanent research staff in universities and research institutions?

  Estimates of the total number of contract research workers in medical science are not readily available. However, there were about 30,000 researchers on fixed-term contracts throughout science and engineering in the UK in 2000 (DTI: Excellence and Opportunity White Paper), the majority of whom were likely to be working in medical sciences. They significantly outnumber the tenured scientists working in the same field. According to data compiled by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the proportion of the total research workers represented by those who are on short-term contracts continues to rise.

  The Academy of Medical Sciences' Working Group highlighted an additional issue: research scientists employed in medical schools alongside clinically-qualified staff face additional problems. Reports from the focus groups show that they suffer real or perceived discrimination by comparison with clinically-qualified colleagues in terms of status, exclusion from academic and social networks, remuneration, career prospects and tenure. It should be noted, however, that these problems are markedly more apparent to junior staff than to their more senior colleagues, probably because, by definition, those who have risen to senior positions have overcome, or somehow avoided, the obstacles to advancement identified by others intent on following the same career paths. Even the more senior, non-clinical, scientists may, however, find their career prospects affected by the widespread assumption that certain posts (for example, Head of Division or Principal of a Medical School) can only be filled by clinicians.

  There are significant advantages for non-clinical researchers operating in a clinical environment. Were this not so, the supply of non-clinical scientists wishing to work in this environment might be expected to disappear altogether. For many, the most important incentive is the unique human dimension of clinical work—the opportunity to tie in scientific research with real and immediate clinical questions, to deliver tangible benefits. This gives a special perspective to the research that may be difficult to reproduce in other areas. There are also very practical advantages, for example working in a clinical environment can help provide valuable access to tissue specimens and pathological samples.

  There are also advantages for clinical researchers in working alongside non-clinical scientists who are able to bring basic biological research techniques and other special expertise to bear on clinical scientific problems.

Q5:  Has the Concordat and the Research Careers Initiative made any difference?

  The data collected by our Working Group will be useful in supplementing the data that are being gathered by the Research Careers Initiative, monitoring progress towards meeting the commitments in the Concordat. It would still be premature to attempt a definitive answer on the impact of the Concordat. Our focus group work shows that an important start has been made but that implementation is variable across the institutions. Progress made to date must now serve as the basis for more systematic action, auditing in sufficient detail to establish that the problems are addressed and introduction of mechanisms to correct those institutions that fail to match the Concordat's goals. We hope that the pace of change will accelerate in consequence of the recommendations from the Roberts Review (HMT: SET for success, April 2002) and as a result of the preparation for implementation of the European Directive on fixed-term contracts. The main Roberts Review recommendations are in line with the recommendations from our Working Group Report (notably, the provision of training opportunities, identification of Research Associate career pathway, need to develop transferable skills, creation of longer-term research fellowships).

  Our recommendations to improve the lot of the contract research workers are described in detail in the Report of the Working Group and form the basis of our response to the next question. It is important also to emphasise that concerted action is needed in other areas—our Working Group recognised that many of the problems facing contract research workers are magnified in the case of women, and that groups such as ethnic minorities and the disabled are seriously under-represented in this profession.

Q6:  How should policy move forward?

  Recommendation 1:  A standard code of employment practice should be adopted by all higher education institutions in relation to existing and newly-appointed contract research workers

  The shortcomings of existing practice are so widespread that they cannot be remedied by a piecemeal approach. We understand that a code of practice has been commissioned by HEFCE.

  The points that we believe should be covered in a code of best management practice include:

    —  Institutions should publish a statement of their commitment both to the principles of the Concordat and to best personnel management and training practice for all staff;

    —  As far as possible, all contract research workers should receive the same terms and conditions of employment as permanent staff;

    —  On appointment, contract research workers should receive detailed information setting out the range of services available and should participate in an induction programme;

    —  Contract research workers should have a clearly designated line manager (responsible for regular project review), full and formal Staff Development Review (career appraisal) and a designated mentor (appointed from outside the research team);

    —  In their last 18 months of employment on a contract, all contract research workers should be considered for eligibility for an established position. If tenure is not to be offered, then help to plan an appropriate exit strategy should be available;

    —  Institutions should provide training programmes not only in research techniques but also in the skills for career development, for example IT, teaching, project management, personal effectiveness;

    —  Institutions should also: (a) make provision of bridging funds, (b) provide central information resources for contract research workers and their managers, (c) maintain detailed staff statistics, (d) have in place formal mechanisms to acknowledge the important contributions made by contract research workers, (e) regularly review the effectiveness of their policies.

  Recommendation 2:  A component of all HEFCE funding should be identified as being dependent on the recipient's compliance with a standard code of employment practice in relation to contract research workers

  The award of funds from the Research Assessment Exercise should be clearly connected to the way research is managed in the institution as well as to the quality of the research itself. By acknowledging the interdependence between infrastructure and products and by providing an incentive for different institutions to adopt the same operating principles (in attending to the development of their research staff), HEFCE can do much to counter the impression that the RAE effectively minimises the contribution made by contract research workers when assessing research groups.

  Recommendation 3:  A proportion of senior contract research workers and of technician/research assistants should be offered recurring contracts

  Imaginative approaches are needed to improve the tenure and career prospects for both technicians and post-doctoral researchers.

  Recommendation 4:  Contract research workers should be allowed to apply for research grants in their own names

  The Medical Research Council has led the way and already allows contract research workers to apply for grants. All funding bodies should now follow this example.

  Recommendation 5:  Employers and managers of contract research workers should acknowledge and recognise the contribution of contract research workers to the work of the research team, including the preparation of grant applications and establishing patents in connection with research projects

  The form of such recognition will vary but the evidence that many contract research workers feel undervalued has serious implications for morale and motivation that can compromise the effectiveness of the research team as a whole.

  Recommendation 6:  Principal Investigators should recognise the extent of their responsibilities for providing the contract research workers they employ with the education, training, guidance and experience that will lead to a successful and rewarding career

  Too many Principal Investigators take responsibility for the research carried out by their team while neglecting their responsibilities to the people carrying out the research—this attitude must change.

  Recommendation 7:  Contract research workers should respond to improved terms and conditions of employment, and a more career-oriented approach from their employers, by accepting more responsibility for their own career development

  Real advances in career prospects cannot be delivered by employers and managers alone. Partnership is needed in which self-aware contract research workers also assume responsibility for their own career planning by taking advantage of the facilities and advice offered.

  Many sources of useful information are now available on websites (as detailed in the Academy of Medical Sciences' Working Group Report).

19 June 2002

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 20 November 2002