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


Memorandum submitted by the Association of Researchers in Medicine and Science (ARMS)


  1.1  The Association of Researchers in Medicine and Science (ARMS) was founded in 1978, in recognition of the rapidly deteriorating, prospects for non-medically qualified researchers in medical research. Its first objective is the establishment of an appropriate career structure to replace the present system of short-term contracts and enable those with the right qualities as well as qualifications to pursue an active full-time career in research, in all branches of science and medicine.

  1.2  The "Case for Careers in Medical Research" was published by ARMS in May 1980 and detailed "Career Proposals" were published in May 1981. These suggested how appropriate careers could be established within the existing budget. Since then we have hosted meetings, conducted a series of surveys to collect facts relating to research employment, provided evidence to interested parties and revised our careers proposals, "Careers in Research", a discussion paper setting out the problem and a way forward (—Appendix 1). This document sets out the background to the problem and sets out specific proposals as the framework for a solution.

  1.3  We welcome the opportunity to provide evidence and have aimed to address each of the specific points raised by the Select Committee. In doing so we are forced to note that, although there has been a slow recognition of the problem, it has been clearly identified, on many occasions, in recent years. There has, however, been a failure to take effective action. Measures taken have been well meaning, in respect of the introduction of various fellowship schemes and the Concordat, but ineffectual or, in the case of the Fixed Term Working Regulations, missed. In general, we see this as being a failure to lay proper responsibility on those organisations, primarily the universities, which have responsibility for employing contract research staff (CRS).

2.  Does the preponderance of short-term research contracts really matter?

  2.1  The answer is yes. Reliance on short-term contracts has important implications for conduct of research. There has been a misconception in some quarters that it encourages more people to become acquainted with research and provides flexibility. In the days when the numbers were smaller and progress to an academic or other career was more straightforward, there may have been some merit in this consideration, but this perceived advantage has long been outweighed by the disadvantages. The experience of other professional bodies, such a doctors and teachers actually suggests that an employment market where more established research posts were available in open competition is more likely to encourage rather greater mobility of a skilled population of researchers.

  2.2  One of the crucial disadvantages in not taking action to address the abuse of fixed-term contracts has been the effect on recruitment. Much evidence is anecdotal, but widespread. It has become increasingly difficult to recruit British or EU Nationals, the bulk of responses to advertisements for scientific research positions often coming from China and India. These individuals may have the required intellectual skills but generally have little or no experimental expertise. Such difficulties are borne out by the result of a recent ARMS survey, where two thirds of respondents, advertising for post-doctoral research staff, commented on the difficulties and not one respondent was unreservedly positive (Appendix 2).

  2.3  The failure to attract school leavers into science must in part be attributed to the perception that the prospects of career progression in science are poor, as much as to the salaries available, relative to alternative careers. Difficulties in filling studentships are increasing. Last year, one London Medical School advertised 12 PhD studentships, had filled only eight by the beginning of term and the total number of applicants was very low, even with a substantial increase in stipend. Another high profile biochemistry department in a London college is currently having difficulty filling its PhD studentships and has concerns about quality of applicants.

  2.4  In addition there is the issue of loss of skilled staff. CRS now leave their temporary posts as soon as a permanent post is offered to them elsewhere, often completely outside research or in a post-1992 University where the teaching and admin loads are high and there are fewer opportunities for research. Either way, promising scientists are lost to research. In some cases ex-CRS may be able to utilise their skills in their new posts, there being in this case less of a loss in terms of training but potentially a significant disruption to a research programme, particularly when a post is abandoned part way through a grant. This naturally adds to recruitment costs and training difficulties.

  2.5  Hidden within the low application rate for research positions is the issue of quality. Although more subjective, it is inescapable that where few applicants are available there must be a general fall in quality of those applying. This was a point made by many respondents to our survey (Appendix 2).

  2.6  A further factor to be added is that of commitment; something that has perhaps been regarded as an integral element of research. However, when placed in a position where it becomes increasingly likely that one will be forced to find alternative employment, and where the system does not make a realistic commitment to either training or career, it would be surprising if commitment by the researcher were 100 per cent.

  2.7  A proportion of CRS with a good publication record will stand a chance of obtaining fellowships supported by bodies such as the MRC, the Royal Society or the Wellcome Trust. But research teams depend on people with a variety of abilities. Those who are not leaders but have a particular expertise in say cell culture or transgenic animals are indispensable but it is equally difficult to retain such people in the absence of a career structure. The situation is exacerbated in scientific departments, owing to the failure of many institutions to provide adequate technical support staff In fact in general terms the run down in the number of technicians has been dramatic with a disastrous effect on the infrastructure of universities. In contrast this is the strength of research institutes.

  2.8  The importance of individuals undertaking research at a level between principal investigators and technicians is well recognised and has been highlighted by the Royal Society in both in its report, "The Future of the Science Base" (1992), and in its evidence to the Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology (Academic Careers for Graduate Scientists, 1995). However, in contrast to expanding its fellowship schemes for high fliers it has done little to support careers at other levels.

  2.9  A decline in numbers, quality and commitment of those employed in research is an almost inevitable consequence of the current state of research employment for most CRS. These factors cannot be seen as having anything but a negative impact on research, and this matters considerably.

3.  What are the implications for researchers and their careers?

  3.1  Historically it has perhaps been fortunate that those entering research have not primarily been driven by the desire to earn a high salary, although the current drive to encourage entrepreneurial individuals would suggest that this should now perhaps be considered a potentially important driving force. However, those driven by an interest in science and a questioning mind will at least ask themselves whether there is a reasonable prospect of them being able to continue in science and research. For many, the conclusion will be no and they will choose alternative careers, with better prospects. Fortunately the drive is still strong in some individuals, so the supply has not completely dried up, but those who stay in research are naturally questioning where they have the most potential to develop and the answer is, "not in the UK". We are therefore losing much of our talent overseas, particularly to the U.S., where, although there is also no promise of a career, the opportunities and level of support are significantly greater. To fill the gap, highly motivated, but generally less well qualified candidates from overseas are applying for the positions here.

  3.2  The issue of commitment is as important to a researcher's own development as to the country's research effort as a whole. Good CRS from the UK, but particularly from overseas, will work hard to publish papers, but may understandably have very little loyalty to the university and little interest in its affairs. They may be likened them to a hotel guest who would not be expected to take an interest in the management. They see little hope of getting a permanent post and usually aim to go to the U.S. In fact it could be said that we are a fine training ground for both native and overseas research trainees, who subsequently leave the UK.

  3.3  Significant efforts have been made to encourage small numbers of very senior researchers to return home. Bribery has worked in some cases but can inevitably make only a small and selective impact, relative to the large number of very good researchers that have been lost. Not only must returnees face a crumbling infrastructure but they have to start from scratch within a system that provides no incentive and career prospects for those that must work in their laboratories. They know the situation that drove them away will also drive others away.

4.  Is there evidence that the present situation causes good researchers to leave?

  4.1  This was addressed above, in terms of impact on research (paragraph 2.4) and researchers (paragraphs 3.1-3.3). Much evidence on this point is difficult to come by and is therefore anecdotal. Funding bodies will often have data in respect of how often it has become necessary to re-advertise a position during tenure of a project, but whether this is loss of "good" researchers cannot be evaluated. However, some evidence comes from a recent cohort study of those that had received Wellcome Trust Prize PhD studentships (highly competitive and paying significantly more than most PhD studentships). This study found that, although over 80 per cent entered academic research, less than half remained four to five years later (Wellcome News, Issue 22,2000). Two of the three reasons cited for leaving research were: "lack of job security and the need to apply continually for research funding", and the "lack of a defined career path".

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

  5.1  In addressing this point in our response to the Department of Trade and Industry consultation on Fixed-Term Contracts (2001—Appendix 3) we proposed a limit to the percentage of fixed term staff in a given employment category. We did not suggest a figure but suggested the target percentage should be challenging and that it might be necessary to provide a target date by which this should be met. This would allow a margin of flexibility to the employer, while focusing the mind of the employer on the need for good management and sound planning. We further suggested a financial premium on employment of fixed-term staff and here we note that this principle already applies to UK researchers working in international organisations sponsored by the UK government (such as the European EMBO and ESO). This premium should provide a disincentive to employment of fixed-term staff, whilst again allowing a reasonable degree of flexibility, and would also provide some compensation to employees for the financial uncertainty of their position.

6.  Has the Concordat and Research Careers Initiative made any difference?

  6.1  It would be wrong to say that the Concordat has made no difference to the lot of CRS. However, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that this has been piecemeal and at the margins. The Concordat has eliminated some gross unfairness, such as failure to allow for maternity leave and the insertion of waiver clauses to avoid redundancy payments, but many practical improvements and the general ethos underlying the document seem to have been widely ignored.

  6.2  In announcing the Concordat in 1996, the Minister for Science and Technology, Ian Taylor, stated "This is not about giving all contract staff permanent jobs". Indeed, it would have been more correct to say that "It was not about giving any contract staff permanent jobs". As stated to those who have attended the research management training courses, organised in response to the Concordat, the concordat is about "managing" the issue than resolving it. This has engendered an understandable degree of cynicism amongst CRS and, as alluded to above (paragraph 3.2), it is not surprising that the scheme has failed to engage CRS on any large scale. As stated in the 3rd Research Careers Initiative (RCI) Report on implementation of the Concordat (paragraph 10), it is unreasonable to expect CRS to engage in this process when `the surrounding culture appears to attach little or no value to personal development'.

  6.3  There is little doubt that many of the parties to the Concordat have striven hard to see it implemented. However, the absence of any clear imperative on the institutions and the prevailing culture, combined with the fact that the Concordat was never intended to address the inefficiencies and inequities of over reliance on fixed-term contracts, has meant that it could never be much more than window dressing. The extent of the failure of the Concordat in this regard may be judged by the fact that, after five years, the 3rd RCI Report was able to state that the data suggested "little change in the extent to which good practice is benefiting research staff" (paragraph 19 of the 3rd RCI Report).

7.  How should policy move forward?

  7.1  An important factor in moving policy forward must be that there should actually be a policy, and it should be clear in its aim of preventing over reliance on the use of fixed-term-contracts in research. ARMS identified the emergence of the problem in 1978. The Royal Society has since acknowledged the problem, as cited above (paragraph 2,8). The 2000 White Paper, "Excellence and Opportunity"', from the Department of Trade and Industry, notes the importance of ensuring "a proper funding framework and that academic careers are rewarding" (Chapter 2, paragraph 3 of the White Paper), and stated "Young people need to be able to see that jobs in university research lead somewhere—whether within academia or to careers outside" (Chapter 2, paragraph 34 of the White Paper). The Affiliated Societies of the Institute of Biology set out in its Charter for Science and Engineering (Article 1: that the `Government must address important issues such as the career paths of scientists and engineers' (Science Policy Priorities 2001). The Academy of Medical Sciences report on `Non-Clinical Scientists on Short-Term Contracts (February, 2002), similarly called for action, as did the Wellcome Trust paper "Radical Thinking, Creative Solutions": Career Issues in UK Academic Research (July 2001). However, none have attempted putting forward proposals to decrease the reliance on fixed-term contracts, except for ARMS. Our own proposals (Appendix 1: still appear to be the only realistic attempt at this and we have yet to be apprised of any reason why these might not form the basis of a way forward.

  7.2  The key to addressing this issue is to make the employers of contract research staff face up to their personnel responsibilities and the detrimental effects that fixed-term contracts are having on research. This will entail recognition that, although individual research contracts are variable and unpredictable, overall external research income is more stable and, in most cases, increasing. The call for greater funding of science is well founded but it is a fact that most of the money that would fund open-ended contracts for researchers is already in the system. Funding bodies already pay the costs of staff that undertake the research work: whether it is enough is a different issue but this should not be a factor in removing the over-reliance on fixed-term contracts. Currently, considerable sums are wasted on advertisement, re-advertisment and training. The reduction in use of fixed-term contracts simply requires employers to engage the appropriate staff, then train and deploy them as necessary to ensure completion of funded projects. This is normal employment practice for most employers and indeed the Universities already do this with their teaching staff. When a new taught course or module it announced, a university does not generally seek to contract a new cohort of staff to undertake it. As with any enterprise, should the source of research income dry up, the fact of redundancy must be faced: contracts at universities have long since ceased to offer tenure.

  7.3  It is to some extent understandable that the Universities have not embraced the need to change their ways. The inertia in the culture has been remarked in the RCI reports on the Concordat and experiences of the way in which the universities have addressed the relatively minor proposals embodied in the "Concordat" indicate that they will not change their practices without pressure. Added to this is their poor record on managing and developing staff. This is attested by the response to a request, by the Higher Education Funding Council, to submit strategies outlining how the universities would spend their share of £330 million on offer to improve management of human resources. Of the 130 responses initially received, only 42 were full. The only major research universities to submit a full strategy were apparently UCL, Oxford, Warwick and Southampton—the other strategies being described as "emerging". Major weaknesses in submissions included lack of: "clear objectives and priorities", "consideration of the significance of the substance of corporate goals, including research", "evidence to back up conclusions" and "detail on how money was to be spent" (source: Research Fortnight 8; 24 October 2001 p4). All universities might reasonably be expected to provide a statement of their commitment to significantly reduce reliance on fixed-term contracts.

  7.4  The Government appear to have missed an important opportunity to persuade the universities to change their treatment of CRS and the efficiency of the UK research enterprise. There were expectations in many quarters that implementation of the EU Fixed-Term Working Directive would place some pressure on these institutions to do this. This expectation is indicated in 3rd RCI Report on the Concordat (paragraphs 13 and 28 of the 3rd RCI report). However, it is now expected that the `objective reasons' clause will be used to avoid changing current practice, on the basis that research contract income is not guaranteed. That this is a smoke screen is highlighted in paragraph 7.2 above, and this may be tested in the courts. However, more explicit legislation and regulations, driven by a clear policy, would avoid this and could make it clear what is expected.

June 2002

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