Memorandum submitted by the University
As an employer of some 900 research staff on
short-term contracts the University of Leeds welcomes the opportunity
to submit this memorandum in response to the Committee's inquiry.
1. Does the preponderance of short-term research
contracts really matter? Why?
Whilst we believe that some turnover of research
staff is healthyboth from the point of view of the researcher
and the institutionwe also have concern about the current
model, which presupposes that high quality long-term research
can be conducted by short-term and sometimes de-motivated staff.
It is frequently difficult, particularly in disciplines that are
in competition with better paid professions in other sectors,
to find suitable recruits. Induction and training of new recruits
takes time and, where the contract is particularly short (say
one year or less), these activities can be squeezed out because
of the pressing need to complete the project. Training of the
researcher for continuing employability beyond the life of the
project is often perceived as a low priority. Research staff on
short-term contracts often leave before the end of the project
or otherwise devote time to finding new employment. This vicious
cycle can adversely affect their commitment to the research and
to the employing department.
2. What are the implications for researchers
and their careers?
Because of the need to complete projects, departments
sometimes pay only secondary attention to the career development
needs of their research staff and to the training and development
needed for their continuing employability. Some are reluctant
to make available development opportunities to their fixed-term
staff; others are reluctant to encourage these staff to seize
the opportunities available. There is a tension between the need
to complete the project and the need to develop the staff. Researchers
can get into a downward spiral of unemployability. Ever-narrowing
specialisation and failure to take advantage of the many training
and development opportunities offered by departments and the University
can lead to a situation in which some staff are employed on multiple
short-term contracts. Eventually they can find it difficult to
obtain employment outside the HE sector. Whilst we would not suggest
that all research staff should be employed on permanent contracts,
we believe that there should be the possibility of more being
3. Is there evidence that the present situation
causes good researchers to leave?
There is no doubt that the current position
leads to low morale among research staff. Arguably those with
the most foresight leave their research posts. A small percentage
obtain academic posts. Others follow the industrial trajectory.
However, evidence from the House of Lords Select Committee on
Science & Technology (Academic Research Careers for Graduate
Scientists, HMSO, 1995) showed that, between 1977-78 and 1993-94,
a 200 per cent increase in the number of contract research staff
was matched by only a 2 per cent increase in the number of permanent
academic posts. A subsequent CVCP study pointed out that the number
of people completing research contracts in any year exceeded the
number of vacant permanent positions arising by five times. Dr
David Clark, Director of Engineering and Science at EPSRC, made
the same point at a CRAC seminar on 24 March 1998 on`Unlocking
Potential: careers guidance for contract research staff and research
students'.The inevitable consequence of this shortage of academic
posts means that good researchers leave. Many, however (including
those with less foresight and those with misplaced aspirations
of obtaining an academic post), get caught in the spiral mentioned
in section 2 above. Perhaps, however, you should not be asking
whether good researchers are leaving but whether the present situation
causes good people not to apply for such posts in the first place.
The answer is most certainly yes. Both the recently-published
UUK report on`Recruitment and Retention in UK Higher Education'and
the Roberts `SET for Success' review point to the difficulties
not only of retention in some subject areas but of recruitment.
The combination of unattractive salaries and short-term contracts
could prove fatal to the future of British science in some areas.
4. What would be the right balance between
contract and permanent research staff in universities and research
This question has to be set in the context of
funding resources. Under the dual support system one third of
our income comes from QR HEFC and two thirds from short-term external
contracts. The proportion of QR which funds mostly permanent posts
is reducing. This has increased the ratio of externally funded
short-term posts to permanent posts. The success of universities
in gaining external income has not been matched by a similar growth
in HEFC QR income. This is adversely affecting the number of permanent
research staff, the number of permanent research support staff
and research infrastructure. A more ideal ratio would be 50/50
permanent/fixed-term. This could be facilitated by moderation
of the funding model or by the introduction of longer-term rolling
contracts and programmes by research councils. However, a balance
has to be maintained to allow flexibility in allocation of resources,
to enable the research landscape to move rapidly and to support
new and emerging areas.
5. Have the Concordat and the Research Careers
Initiative made any difference?
Yes. See Annex 1 for the measures introduced
by the University of Leeds. Annex 2 sets out the staff development
courses currently available through its Staff and Departmental
Development Unit (SDDU). The Concordat has forced universities
to face up to the issues. The RCI keeps us on our toes through
its annual monitoring and disseminates some useful good practice.
These are necessary in the current regime. However, whilst they
help to alleviate some of the problems associated with the preponderance
of fixed-term contracts for research staff, they do not help to
6. How should policy move forward?
The research councils must be forced to adopt
the Concordat more proactively. EPSRC will not, for example, allow
someone to be both a grant holder and employed as a researcher
on an EPSRC award. This is both counterproductive to the career
development of promising research staff and means that such research
staff are in effect debarred from being entered in the RAE. Overheads
on all research awards should include a realistic element for
training and career development. All research councils should
more actively promote the fact that suitably-qualified and experienced
research staff can be appointed on higher salaries. All of these
measures would help to ensure parity of esteem and parity of training
and development with academic staff on permanent contracts. The
adoption by universities of greater use of rolling (as opposed
to purely fixed-term) contracts and a move towards more permanent
research staff should be encouraged through realistic government
funding of science. Although the European Directive will to some
extent have an impact on this, this is a default measure. Universities
and government must work proactively in partnership to address
the under-funding of science which has led to the need for the
current inquiry. Additionally more longer-term programme and platform
funding from research councils would allow universities to take
a longer-term perspective in planning and managing contract research
The University has recently carried out a study
into the promotion and progression of women and men in the Biosciences
at Leeds. The study aimed to explore the factors that determine
whether or not women (and men) in the Faculty of Biological Sciences
seek promotion and/or transfer from contract research to academic
posts, the considerations that influence their choices, and the
internal and external barriers to promotion, whether real or perceived,
that exist. The study elucidated several key areas in which changes
in policy and ways of working, would be welcomed by women and
men, academics and contract researchers. Suggestions for action
arising from the study were targeted at those which could be effected
internally within the Faculty of Biological Sciences, those which
would require the approval of senior University management, and
those which would require action at a national level. National
actions identified are presented below as recommendations.
i. All major funding organisations should
make their current eligibility criteria regarding employment and
holding of grants easily accessible and widely known.
ii. Research Councils and the Wellcome Trust
should consider revising eligibility criteria to make it easier
for contract researchers to hold grants in their own or joint
iii. Universities UK and the universities
themselves through HEFC should collect and present better destination
data on contract research staff:
What proportion can expect to be
appointed to lectureships?
What proportion go to industry or
other employment where their research skills are used?
How many end up in employment in
which these skills are not used?
Can ever increasing numbers be justified?
iv. HEFCE should re-consider the inclusion
of contract research staff in the RAE:
Disincentive to academic staff to
"grow" independent researchers.
Disincentive to academic staff to
co-hold awards with contract researchers.
v. The Concordat should be revised to recognise
Only a minority of contract researchers
are able to obtain lectureships. Training and professional development
needs will vary depending upon career destinations.
Some contract researchers want permanent
research posts in academia. Presently this is not possible.
Some contract researchers are high
flyers but many are not. All want to be treated fairly and to
realise their potential to the full. Again this should be reflected
in different development paths.
Some contract researchers are already
in senior positions and should be treated accordingly.
The working life of academics might
be improved by being able to delegate to experienced contract
researchers. To facilitate this, terms of employment should allow
for a maximum utilisation rate of 80 per cent on a specific project
allowing 20 per cent for within post development (such as staff
training and development, broader training for alternative career
paths, personal research time, development of new research proposals).
vi. The implementation of the Concordat
by individual HEIs and research funding bodies should be monitored
more rigorously; all funders should be required to sign up to
it; sanctions should be applied where it is not implemented.
vii. Research councils and funders should
place greater emphasis on development of researchers, both for
careers in academia and in the public and private sectors.
viii. Research councils and funders should
increase the proportion of longer-term programme and platform
or portfolio awards.
21 June 2002