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


Memorandum submitted by Dr Stephen Collins


  1.  I am writing as a person with first-hand experience of contract research. I have been employed on fixed-term contracts for over eight years, located at five different departments in four different universities (all pre-92). (There have also been periods of unemployment between contracts.) My longest contract has been for three years and the shortest for two months. I am currently a Research Fellow in a large Chemistry department which was awarded a grade 5 in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).


  2.  (This is to aid understanding of the rest of this letter.) In my experience of Chemistry departments most CRS have a PhD and are employed as postdoctoral research assistants (also known as PDRAs or "postdocs") and are often called Research Fellows, although universities vary a little in this. A minority of CRS, typically with a BSc or MSc, are employed as Research Assistants. There are also a few technicians employed on fixed-term contracts funded by research contracts. The boss of each CRS is known as the Principal Investigator (PI).


On Government Agencies

  3.  Government agencies (ie HEFCE and the Research Councils) send out mixed messages. The last RAE, organised by HEFCE and held in 2001, recognised postdocs as researchers and included them in numbers of research active staff, but only on the basis of 10 per cent of a lecturer! On the one hand EPSRC now sends out an end of contract Training and Career Development questionnaire to CRS employed on contracts funded by EPSRC. In addition, in 2000, they ran a number of Career Development Schools for postdocs. (I am not sure if they have repeated them since.) On the other hand, EPSRC does not appear to do anything (apart from produce some statistics) with the results of the questionnaires; it still does not, I believe, allow CRS to apply for grants in their own right (unlike some of the other research councils) and continues to use "spine point 6" as the default salary position for new grants awarded.

On central functions of Universities

  4.  My current University includes in its Handbook for Academic and Academic-related staff the statement "Status of academic-related staff—The University affirms that staff in the academic-related categories are perceived as having status equal to that of academic staff". The treatment of postdocs received by the central functions of the University has improved over the last few years, although they were not "bad" to start with—with postdocs having equal access to library, email, pension scheme and staff development courses. Improvements include staff development and Careers running courses especially for CRS (including an Introductory Meeting for new CRS (which included promotion of the Concordat)), a Review and Development scheme for CRS and the Careers Service explicitly including CRS, the abolition of waiver clauses and eligibility to participate in governance of the University on the same footing as academic staff. It is not perfect though. During a period of illness the amount of time that the University will pay full pay varies according to length of service. This indirectly discriminates against CRS who move between universities.

On departments

  5.  Departments vary and not just from one University to another but within the same University. My current department continues to treat postdocs as second-class citizens. It is hard to see what difference the Concordat has had, apart from the few things imposed on it by the central functions of the University eg Review and Development Scheme (to which only lip service can be paid). Instances of this treatment vary from the almost trivial to much more serious issues which impinge on the ability to carry out research effectively, as will be outlined in paragraph 6 below. All however, are demeaning and contrary to the spirit, if not the letter of the Concordat.

  6.  Examples of differential treatment shown by my department to postdocs are:

    (a)  The announcement of the RAE result last December (a trivial example). The Head of Department sent an email to lecturers, technicians and secretaries on 11 December informing them of the result. The result was made public on 14 December but postdocs only received an email from the Head of Department informing them about of the result on 19 December!

    (b)  Mail boxes for postdocs are in the room with (and shared with) those for the postgraduates (arranged alphabetically—one for each letter of the alphabet) whilst the mail boxes for the lecturers are in the mail room (one each).

    (c)  As far as I am aware all postdocs share an office and all lecturers have an office of their own. At the moment I share a small office with three others. In my previous position I shared a large office with 17 others.

    (d)  A more important example is the issue of the ability to spend money from a research grant without authorisation from the PI—this occurs in only a small minority of cases (even though the CRI says that "CRS should be allowed to develop skills required to manage the budgetary and project planning aspects of research").

    (e)  Postdocs are not allowed to attend Staff Meetings and have no formal say in the way that the department is run even on items that directly affect their research eg provision of technical services.

    (f)  Recently a special meeting was held by the Head of Department about restructuring the department. Lecturers, technicians and secretaries were invited but not postdocs. Following that the Head of Department sent out a "Department of Chemistry Newsletter" by email to the same groups of people. I sent him an email asking him if there had been an oversight as regards the postdocs and he said no—there was no oversight. He had promised the "permanent" staff a newsletter and so it went exactly to those he had intended. As well as ignoring postdocs, who are also affected by any restructuring (eg through decreased availability of technical facilities), he is also wasting a potentially valuable source of useful ideas.

    (g)  Access cards for the departmental fax machine are issued only to permanent members of staff. Although the use of email has diminished the use of fax there are still times when it is necessary eg to supply a diagram for a new design of apparatus, and trying to find an access card is not always the easiest job in the world.

    (h)  Postdocs (plus technicians and secretaries) are actually listed on the departmental web page. This is not usual practice. Some departments (eg Chemistry departments at Glasgow and Bristol Universities list academic, secretarial and technical staff but not postdocs. Other departments (eg Chemistry departments at Cambridge and Newcastle) list academic staff plus a few extras such as Senior Research Fellows.

  7.  Recognising that the treatment of postdocs in my department is not in accordance with the Concordat I saw the (then) Head of Department in Spring 2001 and complained about our treatment. Even after showing him parts of the Concordat and RCI he managed to come up with some petty excuse for every point I raised. On the minor point of the location of mail boxes—he said that these could not be in the mail room with those for other staff because there was not enough space (something which is not correct). On the more important issue of postdocs attending staff meetings he said that it was felt (by the departmental executive committee) inappropriate that postdocs should attend given that permanent clerical and technical staff are not invited. (As an aside it is interesting to note that the definition of "Staff" changes to suit the occasion. In the context of mail boxes it is all lecturers, technicians and secretarial. In the context of staff meeting it means lecturers plus permanent academic related (eg laboratory manager) and a few special fixed-term people(!) eg Royal Society Fellows.) Consequently I corresponded with the (then) Pro Vice Chancellor for Research. He said that the University took its responsibilities under the Concordat seriously but in practice the University is a very large organisation which operates a devolved management structure. In other words the University lets the departments do what they like, which in practice means that if they want to ignore the Concordat, as mine does, then they can.


Role of Principal Investigator (PI)

  8.  The PI is more than simply a line manger but has an element of the Power of Patronage as regards CRS eg in my current department it is up to the PI to decide what access the CRS have to spend money from the research grant. This power is not necessarily a bad thing eg I have had contracts extended at the last minute (as opposed to being unemployed) through the intervention of my PI. However, it is a position that can exploited. EPSRC run a one-day training course for PIs called "The Management and Development of Contract Researchers". It would be good if all PIs and Heads of Department (if not a PI) were made to go on this or a similar course.

Implications of having contracts

  9.  The existence of a succession of fixed-term contracts does have an effect on the staff themselves, notably financially (see also paragraph 10 below) and/or socially. New CRS are generally happy enough to get paid to do research and are not so concerned about the insecurity (or the treatment that they receive). After a few years of contract research people start to settle down and become reluctant to move for a temporary position (especially if they have families). This can lead to excessive travelling (and increased living costs) eg travelling daily from Liverpool to Leeds and weekly from Glasgow to Sheffield are both examples I have come across. The financial insecurity also has an effect on planning: eg if a contract finishes in Spring can one afford to arrange a summer holiday before another contract is obtained?, and b) at what point does one take the risk of trying to buy a property? In addition, as mentioned in paragraph 4, the amount of time that the University will pay full pay during a period of illness typically varies according to length of service which means that CRS that move between Universities have to start from scratch each time they move. It will be interesting to see what effect The Fixed-Term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002 have when they come into effect.


  10.  Although contracts of employment are issued by the Universities, salary levels are decided between the CRS and the PI with the University effectively just rubber stamping the agreement provided a few small conditions are met, notably "the age 27 point" (which is the minimum salary for someone aged 27 or over). This is not a problem if the postdoc is relatively young but if the postdoc is more experienced it can result in the PI exploiting the postdoc. This can occur when postdocs move between projects and are not given the increments to which they are entitled. This is particularly the case where experienced (and so presumably more productive) postdocs are appointed on grants awarded by Research Councils on the standard spine point 6. Postdocs facing unemployment and those from abroad (because they do not know what they are worth) are particularly vulnerable.

  11.  When I was offered my current contract (four days after my previous one had ended) I was offered a choice—25 per cent pay cut or unemployment. I chose employment and am now currently earning an amount equivalent to the lowest decile of salary for Chartered Chemists of my age (Source: Royal Society of Chemistry—Trends in Remuneration UK Survey Report 2002—remuneration of Chartered Chemists in all classes of employment). I am not happy with the system that allows me to be exploited in this manner (and treats me as a second-class citizen in the process).


  12.  Only a few ever make a career in contract research. These CRS are often associated with the same PI for a number of years and have some management in running the PI's research group, typically becoming a Senior Research Fellow in the process. For the rest of CRS, contract research is still not a career and is at best a stepping stone to a career. It is hard to see how it can ever become a career. In a career I expect to get rewarded for success and hard work. At the moment it does not matter how hard I work or how successful I am, my job will come to an end (ignoring the small possibility that it will be extended temporarily). To get a career I will have to leave CRS and eg become a lecturer, or industrial researcher.

  13.  There is one area where the existence of fixed-term contracts is useful for researchers. This is where they are in a foreign country, such as funded under the EU mobility schemes, as they allow an "easy" route into experiencing living and working (temporarily) in another country.


  14.  EPSRC carry out end of contract surveys but appears to do nothing with the information (apart from compile tables of statistics). Departments do vary. It would be useful to have more background information on the treatment of CRS. One possibility would be to ensure that all CRS when they leave, whether part way through their contract or at the end, and whether funded by a research council or not, fill out a suitable survey.

  15.  However, the basic problem is not with monitoring the Concordat but with ensuring that it is implemented. One option would be to include treatment of CRS as a factor in the next RAE. However, the disadvantages of this are that it would be only one component amongst many, and it is a while until the next RAE. Another option would be to link funding by Research Councils to it. A few years ago one research council (ESRC?) linked funding for PhD studentships to completion rates of PhD students. A few departments lost funding through this. The Universities responded by altering their rules (for all PhD students) to speed up completion of PhDs. A similar approach could be taken with departments now—linking funding from research councils with treatment of CRS. This might seem a bit drastic but it is hard to see how a more gentle approach (such as has been tried up until now) will work. The basic problem is one of department's attitude not facilities or money.


  16. Consequently I suggest that the Committee ensures that the following are implemented:

    (1)  Increase monitoring of the treatment of all CRS, for example by ensuring that all CRS when they leave, whether part way through their contract or at the end, and whether funded by a research council or not, fill out a suitable survey.

    (2)  Give CRS a higher profile in the next RAE.

    (3)  Allow CRS to apply for grants from all Research Councils in their own right.

    (4)  Ensure that all PIs and Heads of Department (if not a PI) go on a training course, such as the EPSRC one called "The Management and Development of Contract Researchers".

    (5)  Change the default position on Research Council grants from spine point 6 to any on the RA1A scale.

    (6)  Link funding from research councils with treatment of CRS in individual University departments.

21 June 2002

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