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


Memorandum submitted by Sir Gareth Roberts, President of Wolfson College, Oxford, Chairman, Research Careers Initiative and author of a recent report for Government on the supply of supply of scientists

  For the past five years I have chaired the Research Careers Initiative.

  This was established by the Research Councils, the Royal Society, the British Academy and UUK (CVCP as was) in 1997 to monitor the Concordat on Contract Research Career Management.

  Since then the RCI Group has published three progress reports—its final Report will be produced this Autumn.

  Five of the 37 Recommendations in my Report "Set for Success" relate to employment in higher education and contract researchers. I assume that you will be familiar with these.

  To some extent I was guided in writing this section of my Report by the recommendations of the 1995 House of Lords Select Committee on Contract Research Staff.

  It was in their view:

  "Essential that Universities have sound policies for the management of contract staff, including regular and open assessment and appraisal".

  "Universities should improve counselling, career advice and retraining for contract staff—in areas which may be unrelated to academia".

  "Universities should create longer-term fellowships for the most able scientists".

  There is no doubt that substantial progress has been made in universities over the past five years but the RCI Group has stated consistently that the pace and scale of change need to be increased further to fully deliver our objectives.

  When we wrote our last Report about a year ago there were some indications that the improvement we had witnessed since 1997 may have been levelling off. The "end of grant" questionnaires provide useful data on, for example, the university's policy statement on research staff —what percentage receive and act on this; the proportion of CRC receiving appraisal and skills training etc.

  However, at the RCI Conference in the spring of this year we reported evidence showing that these performance indicators had improved substantially over the past year.

  In my view this is due to three factors. Firstly, the increased pressure generated by the RCI Steering Group via the 100 or so institutional coordinators now in place. Secondly, the impending implementation of the EU Directive prohibiting the extended use of fixed term appointments and finally, the likely new approach by the Funding Councils to ask universities to submit and develop human resource strategies before an element of their research grant is released.

  There are at least three critical success factors involved in tackling this Research Careers Challenge.

  Firstly, the contract researchers themselves must take a more active interest in their own broad career development. A Commonly observed problem is the mind-set of research staff themselves and the need to encourage greater self-awareness and self-help. Secondly, one must have a top down commitment inside and outside institutions to staff management and development. The policy and practice within institutions need to be better tuned to match the diversity of the contract research population. Differentiation involves distinguishing between high flyers en route to academic careers and those who require a business or industrial trajectory. Recommendations 5.3 in my Report SET for Success emphasises this point. Thirdly, action must be taken to promote a cultural change among those responsible for contract research staff—the principal investigators and leaders who build and manage research teams.

  Substantial progress has been made on all three fronts by the Sheffield-based team working on the large HEFCE funded projects. Its findings will be disseminated at a Conference in London on 12 July this year.

  The project has involved 18 universities over the past two years. The output will be available on an extensive web-site to all institutions and stakeholders to download and use. The outcomes will include career management tools, handbooks for CRC and Principal Investigators on the transferability of employment skills, guidance on appraisals and training materials to support the use of the tools.

  I know that their work has emphasised the need for honesty at every state in the employment of CRC. Clearly, better management leads to a better experience for all concerned.

  I am very confident that now that we have the threats of EU Legislation and Funding Council financial penalties, the problems associated with short-term contract researchers will eventually disappear.

  My ambition, as Chairman of the Research Careers Initiative is that later this year all the signatories to the 1996 Concordat will pledge themselves to a fresh Concordat—one that covers high level principles for human resource development in research, covering not only CRC but all university staff from postgraduates through to established academics.

3 July 2002

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