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


Memorandum submitted by the Association of Research Centres in the Social Sciences (ARCISS)


  1.  ARCISS has 70 social science research centres in membership—some in the universities, others independent non-profit institutes—including large and nationally known organisations like the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), the School of Policy Studies, University of Bristol, the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER), the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) and the Policy Studies Institute (PSI), University of Westminster. It is committed to promoting and advancing rigorous social science research. It supports the work of its members by

    —  organising seminars, workshops and events;

    —  campaigning and representing their interests;

    —  developing good practice in the management of research;

    —  facilitating the exchange of information, experience and advice.

  To its knowledge ARCISS is a unique association of academic researchers in both the breadth of its membership from within and outside the HE sector and in its focus on research management. More information about ARCISS can be found on


  2.  ARCISS has long been concerned with the extensive use of short term contracts for researchers. Members have shared information on practices and experience of different contractual arrangements for research and support staff in their centres. ARCISS members were involved in the Research Careers Initiative. In May 2001 ARCISS organised a national conference A Better Future for Researchers? at which presentations were made from different interests and perspectives (not exclusively in the social sciences) and debated. Subsequently ARCISS has supported the EU Fixed Term Directive.

  3.  ARCISS believes that the widespread use of fixed-term contracts for researchers in universities is a consequence of the rigidity of their standard terms and conditions of employment; it is far less common in independent institutes, public sector research establishments or commercial research and consultancy enterprises. This dominance of short-term contracts is not just bad for the researchers, but also bad for the quality of research. In the short term, the divisions and uncertainty the practice introduces into research employment limits effective team work in undertaking research projects creatively and efficiently; in the longer term it restricts the personal and career development of researchers themselves.

  4.  In ARCISS's view consideration of the issue over the last decade has been quite unproductive. There has been only limited fact-gathering; much talk but only producing agreement at the level of high aspiration—as particularly in the 1996 Concordat; little action outside a few pilot or demonstration projects. Most of this has been directed not towards improving the terms and conditions of researchers' employment but towards ameliorative staff development measures.


  5.  It is important to keep in mind some fundamental truths about research—

    —  that intellectual capital, and the highly skilled staff in whom it is embedded, is the essential resource;

    —  that good research is mostly done through team work;

    —  that most research funding in all sectors is "soft money" ie attached to projects—indeed the Funding Council allocations to universities (about 40 per cent of their research income) is about the only "hard money" around;

    —  that there are benefits of scale and scope in research production;

    —  above all, that successful research enterprises need active management of money and people.

  In ARCISS's view the consequent aspirations—nurturing intellectual capital, fostering teamwork, surviving on uncertain income, exploiting the benefits of scale and scope, active resource management—are generally more difficult to achieve where research is undertaken project by project within university departments also committed to heavy teaching loads.

  6.  These aspirations are more easily achieved where university research is organised in largely autonomous research centres or institutes. Such organisations should be free to pursue their own research ambitions, to bid for income from a range of funders, to maintain a broad portfolio of work, to recruit, deploy and redeploy their own staff, and to organise and manage the enterprise in pursuit of its business objectives. In these ways they would emulate within universities the dominant organisational model for research outside them, within independent non-profit research institutes, public sector research establishments and commercial research enterprises.

  7.  Such centres can and should adopt more enlightened employment terms and conditions for their staff. Indeed it would be in their self-interest to do so in aiming for high quality research. There are a number of possibilities (some of which are practiced by some ARCISS members)—

    —  some staff might still be employed on fixed term contracts where—in compliance with the EU Directive—objective criteria could justify the practice; examples might be a secondment, a career development opportunity, or very specialist expertise required for one project only. But fixed terms should be the exception rather than the rule;

    —  rolling contracts might suit some researchers and/or research programmes;

    —  in some cases a consortium of centres might act as employer—where, for example, there is regular collaboration between centres or where there are co-located centres with similar disciplinary or skill requirements—thereby treating researchers as a shared resource;

    —  there may be scope for researchers employed and paid by an agency and then assigned to particular centres and projects—a useful way of handling extreme peaks and troughs in workflow and/or outsourcing specialist skills not readily honed in-house. Though, at present, no such agency for researchers (aside from survey staff) exists;

    —  centres with a cadre of trained and experienced junior researchers could act as a "research hotel" for senior staff outside the centre, providing an alternative to them hiring their own research assistants on short-term contracts;

    —  but most researchers should be offered open-ended contracts—which still leave the employer free to terminate employment with appropriate notice if no gainful or appropriate work is available.

  8.  As well as offering better terms and conditions in these ways, research centres should be able to invest more in career development. Skilful financial management of the enterprise can create surpluses which should be retained in the centre and provide funding for staff development and training. Skilful work planning can create opportunities for staff to diversify and strengthen their research experience through involvement in a succession of projects. And this continuity of contact and teamwork with colleagues within the research centre can provide the basis for the development of crucial interpersonal and management skills and thereby nurture the next generation of research leaders.

  9.  In essence ARCISS maintains that university research is not a special case that justifies the current widespread use of short-term contracts. There are lessons to learn from research enterprises in other sectors—especially about the importance of organising and managing research in ways that enable better terms and conditions for researchers. We hope that the implementation of the EU Directive will force universities to seriously address the organisation and management of research in these ways.

19 June 2002

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