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


Memorandum submitted by Professor Colin Bryson, Department of Human Resource Management, Nottingham Trent University

  I should like to make some brief statements to address the specific research questions the Committee is seeking to investigate. This draws upon the research I have undertaken.

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

  Although there may have been a sounder rationale for a limited number of temporary research fellowships within the academic employment system thirty years ago the nature and the scale of the practice is now quite different. The great majority of time and resources devoted to research in HE now comes through contract research staff, 96 per cent of whom are employed on short-term contract.

  The number on short-term contracts is simply beyond the capability of employers to manage therefore they do not take responsibility and no other body has taken on this role. Managers and planners have adopted a short-term view and see no other alternative but to pass all the risk and uncertainty onto the projects and the project employees.

  It is a very arguable point that contract research using fixed-term contract is an efficient and effective way to manage research. A value for money analysis that exposes many of the hidden costs presents compelling evidence that alternative employment approaches may be more effective.

What are the implications for researchers and their careers?

  There is virtually no career structure and therefore it is impossible for managers and staff to plan and sustain research careers. Some contract researchers have managed to hang on and scrape through, contract after contract but this can be cut short despite any effort they might make, by the vagaries of the system.

  The continued uncertainties and precariousness have a highly detrimental impact on most of the researchers. There are some very sharp implications for equal opportunities. Note that for most it is research they wish to do, and not become lecturing staff (although some switch to this as a pragmatic choice). And note well, that it is academic research that is the desired objective, not a research post in industry. Although this may be unrealistic for all, experienced researchers are an enormous asset both to universities and to the science and engineering base and there needs to be a much more coherent and planned approach to managing research careers.

  Researchers, despite the high status of research in universities, are isolated and excluded from the organisation. Temporary contracts are a main cause of this and this leads to a lack of commitment to the organisation and a disinclination for more involvement by all parties in the employment relationship. Although policies can be made more inclusive the fundamental divide will continue to exist whilst temporary contracts are used.

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

  It is clear that researchers feel and are forced out of research without realising their potential. Retention between contracts is not based on merit or performance, but more on chance. Able researchers have shown strong indicators of becoming very disillusioned with the iniquities of the system.

  The other point is that able researchers are deterred from entering academic research. I could comment from first-hand experience as the leader of the undergraduate dissertation across several programmes in Nottingham Business School that it is extremely difficult to persuade able graduates to undertake postgraduate research as they are aware of how unattractive it is to do so (and indeed one is disinclined to give such poor career advice)!

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

  There may be a limited place for an initial period of research training as an apprenticeship. However this may perpetuate the present system as it was the origin of the use of short-term contracts. It would have to a genuine apprenticeship with the probability of a real career at the end of it. There is a strong argument to appoint all researchers to permanent contracts as there would still be an adequate level of turnover as a reasonable proportion are likely to move on fairly quickly. Good management should ensure that the incapable are moved on appropriately but that the capable who should be retained, are retained.

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

  These initiatives have made very little difference because they did not change any of the key parameters and forces that maintain the present system. At local level, the level where contract research is actually managed (or not managed) these policies have been ignored. Indeed they have acted to reinforce myths and stereotypes such as the belief that contract research is training and development before a career in industry. This is simply not the experience or the desire of the great majority of contract researchers. Therefore there has been no tangible difference to the system. Areas of good practice identified by the RCI were already seeking to manage and organise these matters in a more sensible way in any case.

How should policy move forward?

  The key goal of any national policy initiative should be to break the link between project and employment—the notion of "single contract" research. Research monies need to be organised by universities in such a way to permit a sharing of risk and longer-term planning, and to enable the operation of an employment system with good human resource practices that facilitates the attraction, retention and career management of research staff. To get this started, there needs to be an incentive for employers to do this because individual employers will perceive this as a risk and they proved to be very risk averse.

  Any policy approaches must be "joined up". For example, consistent with other policy imperatives such as the Research Assessment Exercise. The RAE rules tend to minimise the recognition of the contribution of contract researchers. The Research Councils also have a role to play by ensuring that these policies support research careers. Dual funding is not truly dual as it does not pay for the full costs of research. The rules of some research councils also act against the interests of research staff.

17 June 2002

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