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 shorterof 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
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
(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 contractswhich contract researchers have previously
been required to sign to decline compensation on the expiry of
contractsis 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
(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
(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 concernsrightly or wronglythat
industry views personnel leaving academic employment after two
or more fixed-term contracts as having failed in their career
(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
21 June 2002