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


Memorandum submitted by Dr Robert Bradburne, John Innes Centre, Norwich, following the Evidence Session of 3 July 2002

  I would like to add a couple of points to the evidence which I gave.

  Firstly, in addition to the point I made about senior management's lack of interest in the problem of short-term contracts, this is exemplified by the evidence presented by senior management of the John Innes to the committee. In this they claimed that fewer than one in three people at the John Innes are on short-term contracts. However, this did not include visiting workers within the contract workers and (worse) included all support and admin staff in the "permanent" category. Considering scientists (excluding students), the proportion of contract workers is between 50 and 70 per cent, making it much more of an issue for the production of good quality science. I am unsure why management are so keen not to see this as a problem if it is going to affect the science in the long run. I can only assume that they are happy with the status quo and do not want to see major changes which would inevitably cause them a lot more work to put into place for, as they see, little benefit to their research.

  Secondly, on the point of training. The Gareth Robert's report suggested that training should be increased and other witnesses suggested that big improvements needed to be made. I am concerned about implementing this as I think universities will find it a very high cost. At present there is about £120 per year per capita for formal training at the John Innes. This is unlikely to stretch to more than two or three days' worth of courses, let alone two weeks. If we are supposed to be getting equipped for life outside academic science, then money is going to have to be found specifically for this as individual departments are unlikely to have the resources to spare.

  On a similar vein, the question of an extra 1000 Fellowships suggested by the GR report in principle sounds very good. However, as several post docs have found to their cost at the John Innes centre, the fellowships do not cover the overheads of the place of work, and these could be up to £60,000 over five years at the John Innes Centre. This is one of the reasons given by management for not allowing post docs here to apply for fellowships to remain at the John Innes Centre as the Centre could not afford to keep on all the successful applicants. If so many more fellowships are created, what university will be able to foot the extra bill for these scientists, let alone be able to find space to make them permanent at the end of that period. I fully support the idea of Fellowships, but I think that serious thought needs to be given to the funding of them before they become more of a millstone that a liferaft for budding academics.

  The cost of the EU laws however, I personally feel, will not be as great as is feared. Certainly Project leaders at the John Innes Centre are very concerned about where the money is going to come from, but I fear it will not be long before universities and institutes start using tactics borrowed from industry to avoid redundancy pay. For example, offering further contracts to a post doc at the end of their present contract should be a positive thing, but if you want to get rid of someone you only have to offer them a project that you know they will hate and then they will more than likely hand in their notice before long, thus avoiding redundancy payments. This is going to make the end of contracts much less polite affairs and could lead to very bad feeling between scientists. As the redundancy payments go up with age this is also likely to put a strong selection pressure against hiring older post docs, who's lot is already hard enough due to the present funding system.

  Lastly I must say I was saddened by some of Gareth Robert's comments at the end of the session. Firstly, I do not believe that you can judge which direction someone's professional careers will take at the time of their PhD. This is simply moving the "permission to continue in research" step commented on by Dr Link forwards by a few years so that it is based on even less evidence and I don't believe such a move will be in any way helpful to the vast majority of Post Docs. Secondly I could hardly believe my ears when, after all the suggestions of his report and all of the conclusions about what had to change, Gareth Robert's in the end said that he would say to anyone coming up in science "make sure that you have a good supervisor" "you have got to position yourselves to be lucky".

  British science cannot be based on luck if it is to stay at the forefront in the world, and scientists I am sure will not accept a career that hangs on the benevolence of other people and a good dose of luck. To continue in this way is surely folly, and I hope that the report of this committee can do something to make life in science a good career move instead of a life-long exercise in serendipity.

18 July 2002

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