Memorandum submitted by Dr Eva Link following
the Evidence Session of 3 July 2002
Following the Committee request to comment further
on the issues discussed at the meeting I would like to concentrate
on the principles of research and limitations derived from short-term
contracts. Although many of the observations are obvious, they
are frequently overlooked in the current climate of financial
Research in science is a long-term gradually
progressing activity demanding a high intellectual ability and,
in case of experimental research, also technical knowledge and
manual capability. While a library and all other sources of information
provide a basic assistance to theoretical research, experimental
research demands both a source of information and well-equipped,
highly specialised laboratories.
Young scientists develop their interest and
ability to conduct research gradually by gaining knowledge and
experience, as well as learning through successes and errors while
guided by more senior colleagues and specialists in a particular
field. Those involved in experimental research need also to gain
an extensive knowledge in using various experimental methods and
equipment to carry out their investigations without artefacts
derived from technical errors.
Once sufficiently independent/experienced, scientists
define their own interests, form their own hypothesis and build
their own infrastructure (ie own group, a laboratory, access to
other laboratories and equipment within a department (s) /institute/university,
as well as an intellectual collaboration) that allow them to research
their field of interest using funds, predominantly external, awarded
to them personally as one to five year grants.
It takes many years and enormous effort to establish
and constantly develop such infrastructure while being creative
at the same time to progress with the research and teach others,
as well as publish in peer-reviewed scientific journals, deal
with an administrative aspect of the work and apply for further
grants to ensure continuity of the research.
Short-term contracts with their length of a
few months to three years and without any obligation for their
renewal make the above almost impossible because:
1. Inexperienced researchers are employed
to perform particular, very specific (narrow) tasks. More frequently
they move from one employer to another and, therefore, change
a research field, less likely it is they gain sufficient knowledge
and experience to build up their own interest and start their
Instead, they transform into well-qualified
technicians with an ability to use various methods but at the
expense of intellectual development and, therefore, progress to
become independent scientists.
2. Even if an individual matures sufficiently
to start his own research, the transition is hampered because:
(a) the individual has no freedom to carry
out research of his own choice since short-term contracts are
funded predominantly as a part of external grants awarded for
a very specific project to someone else;
(b) the external grant-giving bodies usually
do not accept applications and/or award funds to those not employed
on university tenured posts. Without financial support a new research
(c) for the same reason the individual cannot
offer a post to junior researchers, ie a research assistant or
even a technician (such posts are paid almost exclusively with
external funds at present);
(d) cannot accept PhD students as this requires
a long-term, continuous commitment and supervision that an individual
employed on a short-term contract cannot provide.
3. Even in a very unlikely event of obtaining
an external grant for the individual's own research and salary
or a fixed-term external fellowship, the funds are too modest
to cover more than just running expenses and small contribution
to the laboratory needs. The individual still depends on his colleagues
with the university posts to have access to the laboratories and
equipment, as well as is forced to work on his own without a possibility
of applying for more funds and forming his own group for the reasons
specified in point 2.
4. Having neither his own group nor laboratory,
a senior scientist employed on a short-term contract relies on
a good will of and collaboration with those funded by universities
becoming increasingly more dependent on this infrastructure developed
by him over many years and within a particular institution he
is working in.
Termination of a series of short-term contracts
that forces a senior scientist out of such infrastructure and
to find an alternative employment usually terminates his research
is more unlikely it is that the individual will find an alternative
employer with a capacity to rebuild the infrastructure indispensable
for his research, particularly if this infrastructure has to be
dependent again on a laboratory access and a good will of others.
(A frequent fear of potential competition from an independent
scientist who is moving to the already existing research establishment
makes such transfer to a new employer even less probable).
5. The above chain of events also totally
hampers any career development and promotion adequate to the individual's
achievement, as there is no career structure for those on short-term
Once on a short-term contract the future of
an individual is totally dependent on his immediate employer,
ie a senior member of university staff who provides funds for
the individual's salary and on overall attitude of the university
towards individuals employed on short-term contracts.
Since, at present, short-term contracts are
funded predominantly externally but issued by universities (and,
therefore, with credit of externally-funded work going to the
university and not to the organisation providing funding), it
is not of the university interest to transfer individuals from
short-term externally funded contracts to university paid, long-term
posts. This is because:
1. All credit derived from the individuals'
work goes to a university while there is none or minimal cost
and responsibility for such individuals and their employment to
2. There is no limit to a number of externally
funded short-term contract staff as there is no obligation to
provide any of such individuals with a subsequent university-funded
3. There is no obligation or interest to
a university to ensure development of a full potential of such
individuals, because a short-term contract staff is seen by the
universities as a supportive staff that promotes/accelerates research
of the university-paid individuals rather than as an intermediate
stage of employment that, in principle, be replaced by a proper,
4. For the same reason as in (3) there is
no proper career structure.
As a consequent of the above, short-term contract
staff is treated as servants rather than equal members of the
university community. With no voice and constantly in a subsidiary
role this jeopardises a proper development of the individual's
own scientific independence, research and, consequently, career.
A few individuals who do manage to break from
this subsidiary role are seen as an immediate competition to those
who provide a short-term contract(s) for them in the first place.
Such situation usually results in a termination of short-term
contract (ie the contract is not renewed) and the individual becomes
unemployed, starts along the same "short-term contract path"
somewhere else or seeks an alternative, university-independent
employment or even leaves the country altogether.
It should be pointed out that it is most unusual
for an individual who was employed on a short-term contract in
one university to be employed on a university-paid tenured post
in another without going through the same short-term contract
Short-term contracts used as an alternative
path of employment rather than a "probation time" are,
therefore, a total waste of both a full potential of young, enthusiastic
postgraduates and expertise and achievements of senior scientists
employed on such contracts. Inevitably, this hampers progress
of British science, as well as lowers quality of the higher education
at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.
One does not have to mention a devastating effect
of such a system on an individual's professional and, frequently,
personal well being.
9 July 2002