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


Memorandum submitted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

  The Joseph Rowntree Foundation spends around £7 million a year on research and development projects concerned with aspects of social policy. The focus of the work is promoting knowledge-based change rather than the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Much of the research that it funds is carried out within University departments by staff on short-term contracts.

  The Foundation's view is that the employment contract for researchers should not be different from that of University teaching staff. The reason for researchers being on short-term contracts and for teaching staff having tenured positions is historical. Tenure meant that it was almost impossible for a member of staff to be given notice. The funding available for teaching staff was reasonably stable in the past while funding for research was "soft money". Many HEFCE-funded staff are now on more flexible contracts that allow for redundancy and there are some moves within Universities for staff to be given notice if their performance is not good enough. The funds available to Universities from HEFCE are now rather less stable from year to year. At the same time, while much research funding continues to be on a project basis, the volume of funds for research has increased and at an aggregate level is fairly stable at the institutional level. The gulf between the context of teaching and research is now much less and the rationale for treating different categories of staff so differently therefore no longer holds.

  The Foundation's experience suggests that there may well be differences between different disciplines, and particularly between the world of applied social policy and the experimental sciences, in the relationship between research and teaching. There are a number of well respected, established research units within the social policy field which are funded almost entirely by external money and are run relatively independently of the teaching and research being carried out by HEFCE-funded staff. A good proportion of staff within these units wish to pursue a career in research. They may want to do some teaching but they do not want teaching to become their primary focus. Equally there are HEFCE funded staff who might like to have time away from teaching to carry out some research, but who are not willing to lose the security of their career post. The differences in the contractual basis of full-time researchers and HEFCE funded staff removes the possibility of staff moving from one activity to another, and the flexibility for individuals to be able to choose a balance between teaching and research. The situation within the physical and laboratory based sciences may well be different. I understand that many of the staff are post doctoral researchers who see working in this environment as short-term and a stepping stone to a teaching career.

  It is the Foundation's view that employing research staff on short-term contracts is a substitute for good management, and that good management is what researchers need. Our hope is that Universities will use the EU Directive on fixed term working positively—to provide more security for, and make better use of the skills and knowledge of researchers—rather than as a further excuse to avoid addressing this issue.

  In the context of this broad view that employing research staff on short-term contracts should be the exception rather than the rule, the Foundation's view on the specific questions asked is:

Question A.  Does the preponderance of short-term contracts really matter?

  Short-term contracts are bad for researchers because they make a career in University research a rather unattractive option (this is picked up in Question b). They are bad for funders in that many of the people who have the potential to be excellent researchers are not going into the higher education sector in the first place. Those that do will end up in teaching, where there are dependable jobs (especially those with family responsibilities, who need a reliable income). So funders are probably not getting the best researchers working on their projects. In addition, the attention of staff during the last few months of a contract is often on getting another job/contract, rather than satisfactorily completing the project. Sometimes a project is never completed satisfactorily because the contract researcher with the most knowledge has left before the end. Even if someone stays to the end of a contract the potential of the work may not be exploited to the full. Within our relatively relaxed JRF study timeframes, data sets are often seriously under-utilised. Within Government, the situation must be much worse.

  Short-term contracts are also bad for society in terms of the development of knowledge, as people move on rather than build areas of expertise—the need to move from one contract to the next means that contract researchers often have to do a very wide range of work.

Question B.  What are the implications for researchers and their careers?

  The implications for researchers are pretty bleak—there is simply no career structure for them. Nor are contract researchers well paid, to compensate for this insecurity. As indicated above, there is no justification for this. Universities have been engaged in research for a very long time (and are often earning a considerable amount of money out of it) and yet there has often been no attempt whatsoever to support research units/teams and create permanent posts. As a consequence, many good researchers are forced into full-time teaching against their will. Others attempt to juggle heavy teaching loads with some sort of research output—but this is usually very stressful and the outputs suffer. Those that stay in research are often extraordinarily underrated within their organisations—if they're very busy turning around contracts, they often fail to do the academic bit (journal papers, working on an "international reputation") and don't get the chairs. There's a desperate need for the traditional Universities (the worst offenders by far) to wake up and recognise research as a valuable part of what they do. Given their recalcitrance in this regard, it may well take some dedicated financial input to get them to set up tenured research posts.

Question C.  Is there evidence that the present situation causes good researchers to leave?

  The Foundation does not have access to quantitative evidence of this but there are a number of cases known to us of good researchers moving into teaching or secure jobs managing research within Government Departments, at least in part because of the lack of a research career. There is a considerable shortage of mature, experienced researchers capable of managing a research team or complex projects. There are also beginning to be problems of recruitment at more junior levels.

Question D.  What would be the right balance between contract and permanent research staff in universities and research institutions?

  The Foundation does not consider that "the right balance" is a meaningful question. Almost all staff should be on the same terms of employment—not time limited but allowing for the possibility of redundancy or being given notice because of poor performance. (There may be a case for the first contract to be short-term as a form of extended probation, but even this is not necessary if the member of staff is being properly managed).

Question E.  Has the Concordat and the Research Careers Initiative made any difference?

  The Concordat is very weak. It maintains a position of putting the onus for building a career on the individual—the party with the least power—rather than making the employer responsible for making proper use of human resources. It has had a slight effect of making researchers more visible as a group but has not, in our view, changed the power balances. It is too early to say whether the RCI has had any effect across the board.

Question F.  How should policy move forward?

  The government needs to ensure that the funding councils move to a perspective of investing in research and researchers, not exploiting them. There should also be a commitment that all staff within Universities be employed on the same terms and conditions, except in exceptional circumstances.

13 June 2002

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