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


Memorandum submitted by the Project Scientist Voice Committee (PSVC), John Innes Centre

  The evidence presented here is the collation of evidence from members of the Project Scientist Voice Committee (PSVC) at the John Innes Centre (JIC), and the Project Scientists (PS) in the departments that they represent. Where possible the facts are drawn from the results of a survey of all PS on site in September 2000, but for obvious reasons some of the views represented here can only be supported by anecdotal evidence. Survey results are from 63 respondents, which represented a 50 per cent rate of questionnaire return.

1.  Does the preponderance of short-term contracts really matter? Why?

  (i)  The PSVC felt that this situation did matter and indeed changed fundamentally the way that science was carried out at the JIC. This is due to a mixture of effects that short-term contracts have on the science and on the scientists. The effects on the scientists will be discussed in the next question. Short-term contracts for PS affect the projects on which they are working largely due to the lack of security that they feel as a project comes to an end.

  (ii)  The PS survey found that 18 per cent of those questioned had a future contract arranged, despite having an average of 12 months remaining on their existing JIC contract. Of those 84 per cent were leaving JIC and 17 per cent were leaving science.

  (iii)  Of those remaining, the PS survey showed that only one person (2 per cent) planned not to look for a new job until the end of their current contract. 46 per cent were looking an average of 12 months before their contracts finished, and a further 40 per cent were constantly looking for another job. Looking for new jobs not only takes time, but also distracts the PS from their research and indeed may alter their attitude towards it if they know they are leaving. This situation also means that many projects are left with six months or more remaining with no PS to work on them. The Institute then has to bear the cost of recruiting a new PS and training them to complete the project. It is the view of the PSVC that PS employed on these very short contracts are less likely to be highly committed to the project as they are likely to be doing it to fill in time between contracts and will undoubtedly be looking for their next position.

  (iv)  The committee feels that this is damaging to the individual projects and results in far less "value for money" out of the scientists involved and ultimately less work done for the funding bodies.

  (v)  It is our understanding that Julia Goodfellow views the contribution of Institutes to British science to be to carry out longer term research to meet the mission of the individual institute, as opposed to the shorter term, "inquiry driven" science at Universities. The director of the JIC has been keen to free up money to allow groups with promising projects to apply for central money to allow them to continue past their grant deadline or respond to rapidly emerging science. This may help the science, but certainly does not help the security of the PS and therefore the problems of resignation as stated above are likely to be exacerbated.

  (vi)  The system for gaining tenure track or permanent positions at the JIC (ie getting out of the "contract trap") is primarily publication-based. It is understood by the committee that it is desirable to get the best science into institutes such as the JIC, but we have reservations about the future implications of this preference. Six years' post-doctoral experience resulting in a burgeoning scientific career and good publication record will only be possible for scientists wholly committed to their research and paper-writing. If no weight is given to those who show other skills such as management and non-scientific communication, the committee fears that the resulting group leaders may not be good at managing the future of science and that this problem will then be propagated to the next generation of scientists. Bad management of staff leads to poor productivity in a research group, no matter how brilliant the group leader. It will also certainly not lead to an ethos of training for, and advice in, alternative careers, as such group leaders will have no experience in such areas.

2.  What are the implications for researchers and their careers?

  (i)  It should be stated that the present system does encourage the experiencing of a variety of research laboratories, which can be good for a PS's personal development. However, in a subject such as crop science where the timing of scientific discovery is determined by the length of seasonal trials, such short contracts can be detrimental to career advancement as often there is not enough time to complete a piece of work.

  (ii)  The implications for PS on short-term contracts are far-reaching. The lack of security of contract work leads to a number of problems. Of those surveyed 0 per cent of PS wanted their next job to be that of a research assistant. However, at the JIC there are a growing number of PhD scientists applying for and holding such jobs. The 23 per cent of PS who said they would take a research assistant post in order to stay at the JIC suggest that a pay cut and permanence is preferable to higher pay and a contract if there is a mortgage to pay or the scientist has a family/spouse who would not wish to move at the end of a contract. This situation may be good for the institute as they will get the same level of expertise for less money, but is extremely bad for graduate scientists who will be pushed out of such jobs.

  (iii)  There is a perceived assumption that the forced mobility of contract work is not a problem if a PS is "committed to their science". However, with multiple income families now the norm amongst PS at the JIC, and as the PS will often be the lower paid partner of a couple, this assumption cannot hold true unless the PS is single and has no dependants (leading to a further impoverishment of character types attaining more senior positions, see 1(vi)). Forced mobility due to the movement of a group leader is also a major issue for a PS on a contract. Is it sensible to move for the remaining six months of the contract when there is no security of a new job at the end of it?

  (iv)  The lack of security offered by contract work has repercussions throughout the life of the PS. Several PS have experienced difficulties in obtaining mortgages due to the short lengths of their contract. More worryingly, although the average age of PS at the JIC is 33, almost none of them have children. This (and other data, eg only 7 per cent of PS have ever taken a career break) suggests that women in science are delaying having a family, and the committee suggests that this is due to a lack of security during their twenties. It is also known that several fellowships do not pay for maternity leave, and others will not pay maternity until you return to work. This creates similar loss of productivity to the projects as outlined in section 3(ii), as the group leader cannot fill a maternity position if the person is returning, and yet many will leave once the conditions have been satisfied, leaving the project lacking a scientist once more.

  (v)  Lack of career progression or trajectory. The committee fears that the contract system is a good excuse for PS not having a career structure. Progression is only seen as possible by changing project and contract. Scientific merit promotions within contracts are extremely rare with only one example of such a promotion being known out of all of the present PS at the JIC. This is made worse by the present two-year deadline for the promotion proposal to be accepted. It is highly unlikely that promotion will be seen as appropriate less than a year into a contract (if it is, then the job was graded incorrectly), and so once again the PS is trapped into only being able to move up by changing contracts. This constant shifting between projects also makes it much harder for the PS to consider their career as a contiguous entity, and therefore is likely to be far less directed in acquiring the skills which may be useful to them if and when they gain a permanent position.

  (vi)  There is concern from many older PS that as you get more experienced you get more expensive and therefore the length of the contract may actually reduce as you progress.

  (vii)  Living on contracts changes the entire outlook of PS on their careers. 77 per cent of PS at the JIC would like their next move to be to a group leader or senior scientist position, and yet 64 per cent expect that they will simply remain on contract work without any progression.

  (viii)  Rules of funding and pay. In addition to the difficulty of promotion and career structure, in some cases it has been brought to the committee's attention that pay progression of PS can vary depending on the nature of their previous contracts, leading to people with the same level of post-doctoral experience receiving substantially different wages doing the same job.

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

  (i)  This is a difficult area to quantify as the evidence is largely anecdotal and very subjective as to the quality of individuals and their reasons for leaving science. Each member of the PSVC knows of one or more talented PS who has left academic research, often for a job completely outside of science. From our questionnaire of the PS at the JIC none responded that they wished to leave science, yet over half said they expect to leave science in the future and of those 62 per cent expect this to be through no choice of their own. This career expectation must be having an effect on the employment aims of all experienced researchers.

  (ii)  Women leaving science. The proportion going on to become group leaders is remarkably low. In biological sciences the number of male and female PS is about equal, but the number in senior positions falls to 10 per cent (a number which is falling). Women are forced (by the lack of opportunities to progress on merit) to change jobs all through the years in which they might want to be committing time to having children. This is likely to make even the most talented researchers to look for jobs with more security or chances for progression without having to change jobs.

  (iii)  The PSVC feels that there is still a prevalent attitude amongst senior staff that "if you are good enough you'll get on alright". But as only 10 per cent of PS are going to be able to become group leaders, why are the other 90 per cent employed and trained for 10 years if they are only good enough to leave academic science and go elsewhere? If it is recognised that in the present system only a very small proportion of people will remain in active academic research, greater emphasis must be placed on training and preparation for alternative careers so that all scientists have an informed choice about their career options, and the best can then make the informed choice to stay.

  (iv)  In addition to the issue of retaining good, more established scientists, it is vital to note that the absence of a coherent career structure in research, in combination with uncompetitive salary scales, is now also deeply unattractive to new science graduates and post-graduates. Promising UK-trained life-scientists are therefore increasingly spurning academic research careers at the outset. It is widely known to PSVC members, through communication with present and past research group leaders, that overall numbers and quality of applicants for both PhD and post-doctoral research positions have been in marked decline in recent years, a point which the PSVC hopes will be raised and elaborated by managerial representations to the committee. There are genuine concerns as to the sustainability of the current recruitment situation in many subject areas.

  (v)  There is a feeling at the JIC that many people remain in academic science not because of the career opportunities that it offers, but rather despite of the career difficulties it presents; ie research is highly vocational. The testimonies provided by those who have left science show that they nearly all still want to be doing good science, but they felt unable to continue in the career structure of academic system.

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

  The PSVC feels that this is not the only question to be asking. It is true that contracts bring in "new blood", but this is seldom with the explicit desire to get rid of that person after only a few years. This system therefore leaves research groups with poor continuity, especially with training and supervision.

  It is therefore not simply a matter of balancing the "percentage" of people working on contracts; rather what needs to be addressed is how people are employed on money that comes in to fund specific projects. Funding science on a peer-reviewed project basis is a good way to ensure a range of good science is done at universities and institutes, and would be very hard to change fundamentally. In Section 6, we outline possible solutions to allow more security for (and productivity from) research workers in a funding system that is largely project based. It is felt that project scientist recruitment should be with made the aim of indefinitely employing a candidate. This would ensure that there is real commitment to individuals and their development from the start of their career, and prevent the institutionalised "neglect and abuse" within the short-term contract system that makes an academic career so unattractive to career entrant scientists. The markedly increased attractiveness of higher-security PS positions would lead to a commensurate increase in the competitiveness of PS positions in academia, ensuring that positions are filled by the highest-quality candidates. The ideas presented in section 6 offer ways in which such a mode of employment could be incorporated into academic funding structures.

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

  None of the PSVC felt that the Concordat had made any difference to the work of the Contract researchers at the JIC. Its existence was generally not known about by PS in departments. In particular some areas of the concordat which are seen to have been applied very poorly at the JIC include:

  Section 12(ii) & 30(i) Research councils and institutions should be emphasising a move towards longer-term and/or individual funding. At JIC such moves for current staff have been openly discouraged with the motive that fellowships will be for incoming scientists in tenure-track equivalent positions. This blocks off natural career development opportunities within the institute. Given that 50 per cent of PS want to stay in Norwich after their current contract ends, this position has "created tensions" which the Concordat suggest should be "managed better" (Section 8& 9). Since "mobility" rather than "ability" alone has become one of the criteria on which potential fellowship applicants are accepted, this must raise serious concern about "indirect discrimination" (which is possibly illegal according to the Equal Opportunities Commission) against women and men with family commitments and/or dual career couples.

  Section 14 (ii). Career advice. 67 per cent of PS did not know where to go to get any careers advice. 78 per cent of PS would like information about alternative careers. All those who have been able to get careers advice (only 27 per cent) have found it helpful.

  Section 17(i). Career breaks. 97 per cent of JIC PS have never taken a career break, even though 40 per cent of them have been at the JIC for over five years. This suggests that "re-entry routes" mentioned in the concordat are not evident.

  Section 17 (ii). Regular review of progress and development. 22 per cent of PS said that their line manager's approach to the Performance and Personal Development Review (PPDR) scheme was either indifferent or not serious. 59 per cent of PS thought that it was a helpful exercise, and 33 per cent thought it would be better if it were taken more seriously. It was seen as positive in that it allowed an opportunity to discuss direction with the group leader and review past work. However, it was seen as pointless if it was not linked to any reward or progression and, due to the low priority it was often given, it was seen as irrelevant.

  Section 33. Information on careers progression at start of contract. Only general information is given at the start of the contract the same as is received by all staff. No information on career progression particularly tailored to PS or individuals is given nor are resources apparent for this. In discussions we found out that we were supposed to receive a form to summarise how "training and development benefits have flowed" from the grant but PSVC was unaware of this. According to the Concordat this would be a "condition" of awarding grants.

  It is also noted that if there is no mechanism for assessment that the Concordat is being applied rather than being paid lip service, then it will only ever have been a "cosmetic exercise".

6.  How should policy move forward?

  As stated previously, it is felt by the PSVC that more far-reaching measures are required than simply adjusting the number of research staff on short-term contracts, in order to address the points raised above. It is felt that the current short-term contractual system of research is out-dated, uneconomical, results in the under-performance of both PS and their research, and is of detriment to the careers of a majority of PS passing through it.

  It is felt that there is strong inertia and a general lack of enthusiasm at managerial levels for far-reaching policy change, but that ambitious policy changes are indeed necessary if a career in research is to be an attractive and viable future proposition for talented scientists.

  There is a serious question as to whether too many life-science PhD students are being trained. There clearly aren't the job opportunities for them later on and it is unfair to foster career expectations that can only be realised for a very few. But a large volume of PhD students and project scientists is recognised as essential for laboratories to achieve high outputs of research data. Here there is a conflict between the need to drive research forward, and of servicing researchers' career expectations.

  It is recognised that the eventual career destination of many PS is outside of academic science, and that dispersal of well-trained scientists into a wide-range of industrial and non-scientific careers is both valuable and desirable. However, there needs to be a clear distinction between those researchers choosing such exits, and those feeling forced into them. There also needs to be a cultural change within academia to recognise the validity of PS in training for non-academic roles, to ensure the careers of those choosing such a route are developed with equal and due regard. Career advice and monitoring needs to be much more prevalent and effective, in order that career development can be targeted effectively.

  Within academic institutions, PS need a serious career alternative to Project Leader or Research Assistant posts to enable good, trained PS to remain in academic science without hitting the "dead end" in career progression which appears after a few contracts (see attached testimonials). This is considered by PS to be the single biggest problem of the current contract system.

  Three potential alternatives which the government could consider as a way of solving the problems caused by short-term project funding of research staff are presented here, together with a very brief cost/benefit analysis of each option. These solutions empower a PS with a degree of control over their own job security, and career progression need not be tied solely to the infamous "publications lottery", which can discriminate against talented and valuable researchers through no fault of their own, and which takes little account of the quality of environment within which a person's research has been conducted. However, only the third of these options inherently allows for more security in a PS job, and it is realised that this system would only be operable in a large institute such as the JIC.

(i)  Break the Person/Project Link

  One solution to the problem would be to break the link between person and project. Rather than have each individual employed on an individual project, treat every research group as a unit funded by multiple projects. Within the group the projects can be shared without any person being tied to funding from only one source. In many larger research groups this system of intra-group collaboration already exists in practice at the bench level.

  Benefit: This solution would this prevent equal pay problems and it would allow greater flexibility of labour division. Instead of each researcher having to be the main contributor to all aspects of each project, from planning and processing to analysis and reporting, there could be greater local division of tasks for more efficiency. There would also be greater scope for the development of a local hierarchy to ease management difficulties and facilitate career progression. Employment would continue for as long as the group as a whole has funding rather than each member having their own contract end date. This would increase the probability of finishing projects as researchers spend less time looking for work, and any researcher could pick up leftover projects when others move on. This prevents situations where existing team members apply for new projects within the group in order to gain a longer contract, or valued researchers leaving a successful group because of bad contract timing. In the event of a reduction in funding a Research Group Leader would have the ability to retain the most valuable staff, rather than having to let research group members leave in the order of their project end dates. However flexibility of employment is still maintained for those researchers who wish to move on to further employment.

  Cost: All researchers would have to be employed on permanent or rolling contracts on the expectation that the research group will continue to be successful. This reduces the concern of researchers who would otherwise be approaching the end of their project, but also removes the security that individual researchers may feel at the beginning of each new project. It may be necessary to provide redundancy payments to staff from "downsizing" groups in the event of funding tail-off. However such payments will also be required under EU employment regulations for researchers ending existing short-term contracts. Careful management will be required to balance size of group with predicted duration of funding. Any given amount of funding could run a large group for a short time or a smaller group for a longer time and it would be up to each Research Group Leader to maintain this at an optimum level with respect to the project deadlines. There would however be a substantial saving in the cost of continuing recruitment and re-training of new staff.

(ii)  Allow Project Overlap and Group Overlap

  In this proposal researchers maintain their link to projects, but sever the link with Research Group Leaders. Projects are split into smaller units and any researcher is free to take multiple projects from any Research Group Leader.

  Benefit: With large projects split into smaller sections each facet can be given to the most appropriate researcher. Researchers are able to draw on all their skills and experience of relevance to multiple projects. Researchers are able to create employment stability for themselves by gaining funding from multiple sources with different finish dates and experienced researchers can find reward for their own hard work and efficiency by completing more mini-projects. This removes requirements of training staff in new skills for sometimes a very small amount of work.

  Cost: This is the least expensive solution as each researcher is still project funded. It is heavier on administration costs however as each project must be subdivided into individually costed mini-projects and pay arrangements for each member of staff become much more complicated.

(iii)  Introduce Research Teams and Managers

  Here solution 1 is extended further as researchers are split from individual projects and also from their Research Group Leaders. Instead researchers are organised into Research Teams providing a service to the department. For example, instead of each research group having a statistician, a PCR technician and a genetic mapper, there would be a departmental statistical analysis team, a PCR team and a mapping team, each processing work for multiple Research Leaders. The Research Teams are co-ordinated by Team Managers who organise the tasks within the group, liase with Research Leaders and co-ordinate with other Team Managers. Team members should retain their flexibility and multi-disciplinary skills by frequent change over from team to team.

  Benefit: This system avoids current problems of recruiting researchers with the correct balance of skills and experience. For example, a project may require a small amount of a highly analytical technique, eg quantitative genetic mapping, and a large amount of very routine work, eg marker screening of large populations. Finding a researcher who is experienced in the former, but who would not become bored of the latter is difficult and often a compromise must be sought. With this system Research Leaders are able to request work from any Research Team and can at all times employ exactly the right mix of skills for their projects. Similar work can be combined efficiently within the teams and all Research Leaders have access to the entire skill base of the department. Frequent exchange of researchers between the teams allows each research team to expand and contract as the work of the department requires, prevents staff boredom, and permits skill training and skill retention to occur in a proactive and positive way. The Research Leaders will have no direct staff responsibilities and will be free to concentrate on and pursue the strategic aspects of their science.

  Cost: Like solution 1, the staff must be employed on permanent or rolling contracts, but this time the costs are spread and efficiencies gained across the department as a whole. An extra layer of management is required, the Team Manager, to co-ordinate the Research Teams. These would be senior positions of a level with most Research Leaders (approx five positions per department at Band 4-5; £23,000-£47,500). However Research Leaders would no longer require a Research Assistant (approximately 10 positions per department at Band 6-7 £15,900-£27,000) and there would be considerable savings in recruitment and training costs because of improved staff retention.

(iv)  Overall Recommendation

  A comprehensive restructuring of the funding and recruitment system in research institutes would provide major benefits in staff morale and avoid serious existing problems of staff retention, continual recruitment costs and training costs. It would also allow greater compliance with employment law. This could be achieved by either breaking the link between researchers and research projects (Option 1), uncoupling researchers and research group leaders (Option 2) or both (Option 3). It is suggested that courageous and progressive changes are indeed now desirable, and need not be logistically prohibitive to implement. Any restructuring strategy should be flexible, enabling the implementation of a choice/strategy appropriate for each type research institution. Finally it is suggested that a code of good practise should be adopted by institutions towards their contract researchers, which must be linked to formal monitoring and consequences for under-performance or non-compliance. This would help to ensure that PS feel they are treated as valued and respected members of the academic community, as opposed to disposable "hands at the bench" as is the prevalent perception at present.

21 June 2002

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