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


Memorandum submitted by Dr Bryn Jones

  As a postdoctoral research associate employed on a fixed-term contract, I was greatly encouraged to read in the latest edition of Armstrong and Geophysics that your Committee is investigating the consequences of fixed-term contracts in academic scientific research. It is excellent to learn that the Committee is interested in the experiences of researchers employed on short-term contracts.

  I am currently employed on my fifth fixed-term contract in my fourth university. Three of these contracts have been funded by research councils for periods between two and three years in length. The other two contracts were funded from departmental sources and were shorter—of one year and of three months duration respectively. There were periods of unemployment between these contracts. The work has covered a number of distinct research fields, with only some overlap in subject: switching research fields, with the resultant loss of research efficiency has been common. I believe that this experience enables me to comment on the effects of fixed-term contracts on scientific research in the United Kingdom.

  In my opinion, the dependence on fixed-term contracts causes a number of significant problems, which substantially affect the research productivity of the academic community. These are often exacerbated by related factors, such as the frequent failure to renew contracts and a very poor career structure.

  Based on my own experience, it is possible to identify the following specific problems relating to current employment practices, caused by a dependence on fixed-term contracts directly, and by how they are implemented. It should be emphasised that this experience relates to employment in basic science, in fields relatively distant from immediate commercial applications. This is in a discipline (astronomy and astrophysics) which has traditionally attracted numbers of good PhD candidates and in which an influx of many newly qualified PhDs has offset the loss of more experienced researchers due to the poor career structure.


  Many short-term contracts are not renewed, particularly when they are externally funded (for example by research councils). As a result, researchers regularly change field within their broad academic discipline. Projects are often not fully completed before expiry and fewer results are published. There are lost opportunities for the scientific community due to the failure to keep staff working in the subject areas where they have most experience and are most efficient at research. There is also a negative effect on the individual's career development.

  It has been my own experience that grant holders, and often university departments, are very committed to renewing contracts, but departmental funds for employing researchers are very scarce. University departments are heavily dependent on external bodies for funding to employ research staff. In my own discipline the only significant source of funds is the relevant research council. Grant holders have been very keen to obtain new research council grants to reappoint researchers, but only a minority of grant applications are successful. As a consequence, only a minority of fixed-term contracts are renewed. In my own case, previous grant-holders have been unsuccessful in getting additional funding for me to continue, despite considerable efforts.


  Short-term contracts often mean relocating to a new institution when a contract ends, disrupting domestic circumstances. Many researchers find it difficult to purchase homes or even to establish families. Some people report problems in obtaining mortgages to buy homes.


  Research salaries compare poorly with other careers requiring similar qualifications and professional experience, even within the public sector. This is significantly exacerbated by periods of unemployment between contracts and relocation expenses when moving from one institution to another to take up a new contract. Some researchers, particularly those eligible for placement at a higher point on the pay scale because of their age, feel it necessary to accept a salary at a lower point on the salary scale than their age would allow, in order to extend the lifetime of the contract to maximise the results that can be achieved before the contract ends.

  When transferring to my current position, I had removal expenses of £700. My old house was later sold with the consequent estate agent and solicitor's fees. These expenses were incurred despite a period of some months without a salary before starting my current contract. Because there are insufficient funds in the grant from which I am now employed to pay me at the normal salary point for my age for a full three-year period, I have accepted being put at a lower point to give three full years, with the hope that this will give time to produce sufficient results to prove my capabilities in order to obtain a new contract or some career advancement.


  It becomes increasingly difficult to find new contracts as one progresses in one's career. As a result, highly gifted people leave UK academic science after one, two or three post-doctoral positions due to (a) a desire to achieve better career prospects, (b) disillusionment over employment conditions, salaries and career prospects in academia, or (c) an inability to find further research contracts. Scientists frequently report difficulties in finding new contracts after serving two or more post-doctoral positions. This is largely the result of the higher salaries that would be paid out of limited research funds. Career prospects are much poorer if a researcher takes time out to start a family: this particularly affects the participation of women in science.


  A majority of fixed-term research positions are post-doctoral research assistantships or associateships. Scientists are appointed to work on specific projects for grant holders. They often do not have the opportunity to take the lead in projects or to initiate major projects. Consequently, post-doctoral researchers find it difficult to demonstrate the skills required to compete for permanent positions (eg lectureships).


  Funds available from research councils for grants are often squeezed due to the strong pressures on council budgets. The numbers of grants awarded in individual grant rounds can sometimes be significantly reduced, further restricting the number of research positions funded at that time and forcing some researchers whose contracts are close to expiry to leave UK science.


  The large number of short-term contracts, poor career prospects and uncertainty about future directions leads to low morale among researchers, in turn affecting work productivity.

  It is possible to identify reforms that could improve employment conditions and career opportunities. In turn, these could improve scientific productivity. Among these reforms might be:

    (a)  More funding through the higher education sector for careers. There is an overdependence on research councils to provide funding for early- and mid-career researchers, particularly through the grants system. It would be positive to have some sharing of responsibility between the higher education sector and the research councils. Funding is required for long-term positions. Additionally, greater resources for short-term employment could create continuity between grant awards from external bodies, enabling researchers to be kept in place after the expiry of grant-funded contracts until new grant awards are made. Such short-term bridging funds would need to be spent at the discretion of university departments. These initiatives would require new money to be made available to the universities.

    (b)  Research councils to attempt to create more long-term employment opportunities, in particular for people in the middle or later stages of their careers. Research councils have shown some commitment to increasing the numbers of researchers employed on rolling grants, which allow for the renewal of contracts on a rolling basis. A further increase in the use of rolling grants could significantly improve continuity. However, simply shifting the balance from single fixed-term grants to rolling grants, would reduce the employment opportunities for new researchers.

    (c)  Achieving a more natural balance between the numbers of scientists beginning careers on fixed-term contracts and the numbers ultimately achieving permanent positions. In many academic fields virtually the only permanent positions available are university lectureships. At present, only a small proportion of people beginning research careers can expect to find permanent employment: a majority are expected to leave UK academia and in many cases go abroad or leave science altogether. Some greater provision of permanent research positions would lessen this imbalance.

    (d)  More financial compensation for researchers on the expiry without renewal of fixed-term contracts. The abolition of waiver contracts—which contract researchers have previously been required to sign to decline compensation on the expiry of contracts—is a welcome development. However, adding an additional overhead to grant income to fund a more generous settlement if contracts are not renewed would provide some greater financial protection during periods of unemployment.

    (e)  Greater efforts by research councils to avoid squeezing funds used for salaries, particularly through the grants line.

    (f)  More three-year fixed-term research fellowships. A greater provision of three-year fellowships, in addition to post-doctoral research assistantships, would enable more gifted researchers to follow their own research programmes. Current junior fellowship schemes are often restricted to candidates within a fixed time after completing their PhDs: a greater number of fellowships without age restrictions would be beneficial.

    (g)  Acceptance that older researchers will be paid for a full three-year contract at their full salary scale. This could be achieved if more funds could be included in grant awards, or universities took less money as overheads when employing more experienced staff, or more realistically, by a combination of both.

    (h)  Greater support to researchers in transferring to employment outside academia/science. Universities and research councils do offer some career advice and courses, but there could be further support for researchers who choose, or find it necessary, to leave academia. For example, institutions and councils could publish lists of companies which have records of recruiting former academic scientists.

    (i)  Promoting the potential of academic scientists to non-academic employers. There is a perception among established researchers that potential employers outside academia do not take former academic scientists seriously if they attempt a change of career. There are concerns—rightly or wrongly—that industry views personnel leaving academic employment after two or more fixed-term contracts as having failed in their career paths.

    (j)  Provision of some permanent research positions for outstanding scientists who do not have the personal qualities for university teaching.

    (k)  Greater efforts by professional bodies and trade unions to lobby for practical improvements in employment conditions.

21 June 2002

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