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


Memorandum submitted by the Equality Challenge Unit


  1.  In Higher Education science research there is a predominance of fixed-term staff, resulting from the restricted funding streams competitively awarded per project.

  2.  Despite some improvements in recent years, there remain significant differences between the treatment of staff on fixed-term contracts and those on open-ended contracts. These differences may be in relation to terms and conditions of service and/or in relation to the integration into the general culture and "business" of the Higher Education Institution (HEI), leading to a feeling of exclusion (well-attested in qualitative research), as well as actual exclusion from some of the formal and informal opportunities available to other staff which may be valuable for career and personal development.

  3.  Women and people from ethnic minorities (which are, or course, overlapping groups) are disproportionately represented amongst fixed-term contract staff in relation to the rest of the HEI staff profile. This is a situation which tends to increase the sense of isolation and difference referred to in (2) above.

  4.  There are two major areas of concern in relation to equal opportunities practices:

    (a)  the way in which the fixed-term appointments are made, which are commonly by nomination and not through normal good practice processes; and

    (b)  the on-going processes of objective managerial support, including career development and provision of access to scientific networks which are crucial in positioning the fixed-term employee to obtain an open-ended contract, whether within the HE sector or beyond.

  The differential exercise of informal processes, on which much still depends in the fixed-term (contract research) arena, have differential effects on those who are perceived as minority groups, ie ethnic minorities, as actual minorities within the population at large; and women as "constructed minorities" within what is still predominantly a male-dominated scientific culture.

  5.  There is a strong "dominant culture" effect in most areas of science, engineering and technology, which has a differential impact on those who are not perceived (by themselves and/or by others) as being part of that culture. This effect may have an impact on those within the scientific world, already employed on fixed-term contracts. It may also have an impact on those considering entering such forms of employment, deterring them from committing to such a career.

  6.  There is a recognised need for more scientists in the UK, but if the problems of fixed-term employment are compounded for major groups (notably women and ethnic minorities) by enhanced feelings of isolation and a strong sense of being caught within the less favourable employment context, the resulting "leaky pipeline" leads to a loss for the UK as a whole.


  7.  The greatest source of improvement, which would lead to a better return on initial investment, would be some measure of change on the way science research is funded, thus allowing for a greater proportion of open-ended contracts.

  8.  Work to carry forward the aims of the Research Concordat initiative is in hand. This is clearly still needed: a recent report, Academic Careers in Scotland, carried out by the Institute for Employment Research, and funded by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (publ. December 2001) showed the extent to which:

    —  professional development of fixed-term staff needed to be improved;

    —  considerable training was needed to improve the human resource management skills of the relevant senior staff.

  The implication of these findings, however, are that the restricted funds which finance most science research must include within them explicit allocations of time and money to meet the developmental needs of those managing and those being managed. Progress will not be made if the resources are seen as being "taken out" of the actual research funding.

  9.  Legislation will in theory soon deliver some improvements, although the impact of the Fixed-Term Directive on contract research staff is not yet certain and could, in some instances, produce the adverse effect of a greater turnover of staff, in contradiction to what the law intends.

  10.  The Funding Councils' commitment to improved human resources stategies will provide a better employment context for all staff.

24 June 2002

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