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


Memorandum submitted by Research Councils UK (RCUK)


  1.1  The government-funded Research Councils are Non-Departmental Public Bodies (NDPB) under the auspices of the Office of Science and Technology (OST) within the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). Most of the Councils' funding is through the Science Vote to the OST. The Councils are committed to supporting high quality research and training across the whole science and engineering base. This is a collective response on behalf of all the Councils through Research Councils UK as explained in the covering letter.

  1.2  The Research Councils have an interest in this inquiry in two respects—as funders of research carried out in higher education institutions (HEIs) and other research establishments and, in the case of four of the Councils, as the direct employers of research staff. In the case of the former, the Councils' primary concern is that of funding high quality research whether in identified priority areas or through responsive open competition. Funding decisions are informed by rigorous peer review, which takes into account a wide range of factors and cannot therefore be determined by considerations of individual abilities and careers. For these awards applicants for research grants can apply for costs to support research and other staff associated with the proposed research programme. The terms of employment for these staff are the responsibility of the employing institution and not the Research Councils. In the latter instance, the BBSRC, CCLRC, MRC and NERC also employ staff directly within their own research institutes.


  2.1  RCUK believes that the employment of contract research staff (CRS) and the concept of early career mobility is an essential component of public funding for leading edge creative science and for the funding of research within the UK's HEIs and independent research institutes more generally. However, for some of the reasons discussed further below the high proportion of such staff probably does matter. Under the current system the risk-bearing and uncertainty which is unavoidable in the research labour market is heavily loaded onto the individual researcher. Although there have recently been some positive developments in university research employment, the norm remains that if there is no secure long-term funding for a research post then the researcher is retained on short-term employment. This is such that whereas some 6 per cent of the UK workforce is on temporary contracts this is nearer 30 per cent in the university sector, with a large proportion of that coming from contract research staff. Most businesses operate with uncertainty about their future income, but do not transmit that to offering only temporary employment, other than to senior employees. Consideration should be given as to whether anticipation of future grant income by universities could allow for a greater number of open-ended appointments. At present, the differences in the number of short-term appointments between the university and other sectors mean that there is greater insecurity of employment which must add to the relative unattractiveness of such employment although it is no doubt offset to some extent by the interest and relative freedom which research work intrinsically offers.

  2.2  In addition to the question of numbers alone, RCUK believes that consideration should also be given to the particular problems that can arise and the reasons for them. In particular, the use of very short contracts (ie less than a year), excessive periods of employment as a contract researcher and poor management of research staff need to be addressed. High turnover of staff can also represent a waste of highly trained personnel, especially where there is a long-term need for a particular type of expertise but the only available sources of funding are short-term.


  3.1  It is important to emphasise that, at its best, employment as a contract researcher is an important stage in the development of a researcher's career, providing the opportunity to deepen and broaden research experience after the PhD; to move into new areas of research and develop new approaches; and, to show evidence of independence, innovation and leadership. For some this provides the opportunity to make an informed decision about future plans and opportunities in terms of further research or moving into other fields. Clearly a large number of researchers face a point where they have to choose between a career in research and long-term secure employment. This might not be a problem if all employment and careers were becoming more flexible but this is less the reality than the appearance. In addition the level of financial reward and possibilities for career progression in research will often be lower than in related professional fields to which researchers might move. It does mean that some of the more able researchers (though not perhaps the very ablest) will be lost to the system. Others will carry on, but every other year or so their primary focus will be distracted as the need to secure future employment becomes more pressing than the need to complete the research in hand.


  4.1  The evidence in this area is limited and primarily anecdotal. ESRC, along with the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC), agencies of the Scottish Executive and the Wellcome Trust, did however sponsor a study of contract researchers in Scotland over a period of years. Copies of the report can be obtained from the Institute of Employment Research at the University of Warwick. This did indicate that there were good researchers who wished to continue careers in research but found the present system of continuous short-term contracts a severe disincentive. That said, there is a range of contributory factors, which act as potential deterrents to the pursuit of a research career, such as low pay or the absence of suitable equipment and facilities, and the prevalence of fixed-term contracts is only one of these. The issue is, therefore, one of recruitment and retention.

  4.2  This raises the question of whether those who cannot find permanent appointments should be continuing in research or not. The very best researchers after three to six years in post-doctoral research are normally able to obtain either academic or permanent research appointments. However it is clear that there are not sufficient such appointments for all those researchers who wish to remain in research, and, more importantly, under the present conditions are required in research to meet workforce needs. As a result a significant number of researchers have been contract researchers well beyond five years, and other able researchers will have given up for other careers, because of lack career progression and security.

  4.3  It will be critical, if researchers are to be offered permanent appointments at this stage in their careers, that they fully understand the terms upon which this is possible, and that they have the flexible range of high-quality research skills to relate to a number of research areas and approaches. In this sense the proposals in the Roberts Report seem highly appropriate, though they might perhaps be rather more flexible than seeing permanent researchers who are not research leaders simply as "methodologists" or "technologists". Nevertheless unless they are skilled and flexible the possibility will always prevail that their competences will not always meet future needs. No system can afford to offer permanent employment to those whose skills do not meet the work needs.

  4.4  That said, there is some evidence from the independent research sector that it is possible to offer a greater number of open-ended appointments, that these do enhance the research base and capacity of the organisation, and that appropriate turnover can be managed.


  5.1  There can be no central planning based answer to such a question, and to some extent the market for research in different subjects and at different points in time will have to determine this. Employers and funders need to be able to direct and respond to scientific needs in line with national priorities. There are other scientific benefits from the national and international mobility that is a consequence of the current system such as the development of inter-institutional and international research teams and networks and the development of innovative and inter-disciplinary approaches.

  5.2  There are many who are more able to make a contribution early in their careers, but who will not sustain this longer term. But it is not possible to ascertain who will be the longer-term leaders without testing performance at the early stages. For this reason there is a need for a reasonable number of initial fixed-term appointments in the initial period after doctoral training. Beyond that however there is a case for a greater preponderance of open-ended contracts. There is little value at this stage perhaps in a theological discussion of what the balance should be, as the EU Directive in force from 11 July will deem all those with appointments in excess of four years from that date to be on open-ended appointments. This will certainly redress any current imbalance, although it may also lead to the termination of employment at three to four years for those who might wish to continue, but where employers do not see long-term prospects.

  5.2  A critical issue here which will need to be reviewed is the impact on university employment provisions. For many employers open-ended appointments are not so onerous because if redundancy situations arise then only statutory severance terms apply. While these provide some basic security they are not unduly onerous. Other employers will have higher contractual terms. It is unlikely (although clearly subject to legal test) that where employers have higher contractual terms these will not have also to be applied to those who obtain open-ended appointments under the EU Directive. For universities this may prove particularly problematic. Their severance terms, and equally importantly their procedures, deriving from previous arrangements, which gave permanent academic employees "tenure", may be particularly burdensome. It may be that, unless there is some reform in this area, universities will still be driven to keep to a minimum the number of open-ended appointments they allow. This could have an unintended adverse effect on contract research staff, where employment beyond three to four years is just not contemplated, except in the cases of the very ablest researchers, who might in any event obtain academic appointments.


  6.1  There is a general feeling that the Concordat has had some positive impact but not as much as many would have wished. The evidence from the Research Careers Initiative (RCI) report last year and the Scottish study, referred to above, is mixed. Some more permanent research opportunities in universities have been created although in terms of the overall number of people employed on fixed-term contracts it is not clear that the RCI has had any significant impact. Examples of good practice in areas such as staff appraisal have been identified and disseminated and some work has been done on training and development, especially in transferable skills, but this has been variable. Similarly career guidance has been limited, as University careers advisory services are primarily geared to undergraduates. Overall the RCI has helped move the discussion forward and has undoubtedly strengthened the recognition by all parties of the need to address these issues but it now probably requires some further impetus in order to deliver its objectives and indeed to meet the recommendations of the Roberts Review.


  7.1  Implementation of the main Roberts' recommendations relating to pay, training and career development for CRS would be a welcome and positive step and RCUK has already welcomed and supported the Roberts Report in its formal response to the OST. There must also remain some flexibility in the system to recruit newly qualified postdoctoral researchers with new ideas and expertise.

  7.2  The EU Directive on Fixed Term Appointments will clearly have a major impact. Researchers in continuous employment for four years will by July 2006 have de jure open-ended appointments. It is however undesirable merely to allow this to bite as it will. In terms of employment and contractual matters, the university and dual support system needs a clear strategy to fall behind this requirement. Issues which need to be considered include:

    —  how to deal with the position of those researchers who have already had continuous contracts for more than four years (rather than awaiting the July 2006 impact date); and

    —  review of the severance terms which should be applied to such staff if at some stage in the future termination becomes unavoidable (this will need to take in both the position vis-a"-vis University statutes, and the allocation of responsibility for severance -should it occur*—between universities and funders, including research councils).

  7.3  The responsibility for career development and guidance must rest primarily with the researcher's employer. As such, specific funding and policies for CRS career development should form part of an institution's human resources strategy. This might include:

    —  review of the competences, skills and qualifications of all those moving to permanent appointments, with personal training plans put in place for one to three year periods where these need to be enhanced; and

    —  establishment of career advisory capacity within Universities and other research employers to assist those, whether on temporary or open-ended appointments, to re-align their careers where it becomes clear from periodic career and development reviews that moving forward in this way is desirable.

  7.4  There also needs to be a better match between individual expectations and a realistic assessment of the opportunities available in research and academia generally and, more importantly, within an individual's area of expertise. This could be supported by increasing the scope for exchange and career movements between academia and industry (and other sectors)—in both directions. One example of how this could be encouraged, and which is strongly endorsed in the Roberts Report, is the EPSRC's Research Assistants in Industry (RAIS) scheme where postdoctoral researchers working on collaborative research projects spend a year in the collaborating company, or within spin-out companies, "transferring" the technology developed in the earlier part of the project.

  7.5  As the RCUK response to the Roberts' Review also indicated, addressing these problems will require additional resources. Without these, there is a limit to what can be achieved to alleviate the problems described above and/or there will need to be a reduction in the volume of research undertaken.

  It should, however, not be assumed that severance will be anything like the normal outcome. Most people in open-ended appointments move seamlessly on to further employment without need for severance. However it might be assumed that severance would occur in say 5 to 10 per cent of cases, or such other percentage as empirical evidence might suggest would apply in this area.

  It is also important to note that, for those research councils that employ research staff directly, the cost implications are likely to be significant as more generous redundancy agreements analogous to those in the civil service are in operation.

June 2002

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