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


Memorandum submitted by Dr Paul Robson and Dr Gordon Allison, IGER


  We should like to address the remit of the Committee concerning the effects that short-term contracts (STCs) have on British science. Against a background of increasing success it could be argued that British science is working. Contributing 8 per cent of the world's publications from only 4 per cent of its scientific investment would appear to be a sign that more of the same will sustain Britains position in science. At the core of this apparent success however, is a culture of dissatisfaction, of an inability to effectively utilise the scientific base for the benefit of Britain and a looming crisis in recruitment. A significant proportion of the problems facing British science stem from the lack of a career structure engendered by a culture of short term employment, which impacts not only on the personal well-being of individuals but on the broader competitiveness of British science.

  Focusing on post-doctoral scientists, the preponderance of STCs is an historical relic and is unfitting in a modern technology driven economy. In the past a post-doctoral position was seen as a period of apprenticeship prior to a lectureship. Today, post-doctoral scientists make up the backbone of British science, taking on the roles of teacher, mentor and innovator; however, they invariably lack even the most rudimentary career structure.

  The science base and the number of qualified scientists has expanded dramatically in recent years, as is befitting a technologically advanced nation, and yet the numbers of lectureships have barely changed; this has left an inevitable vacuum in many academic scientific careers. An additional consequence of this expansion is that the teaching load borne by lecturers has increased, making the requirement for experienced researchers to shoulder some of this burden ever more acute.


  What are the consequences of the absence of career structure that lies between completion of a PhD and a permanent scientific post, does it simply result in a higher calibre of, for example lecturer, succeeding from a larger pool of post-docs? It should be noted that not all lecturers are high calibre scientists. Some have simply taken a career path that more readily facilitated a permanent post, such as limiting their experience early in their careers to focus on a single area in which they can develop an international reputation. Should limited and highly focused research early in ones career be the model for a successful scientist? We would argue that it should not. Broad experience of experimental systems and fields of research is a desirable scientific attribute that facilitates innovative and original research. However, it is somewhat paradoxically penalised under current funding regimes. The large proportion of STCs that do not have a named researcher are funded at the minimum starting salary and thus effectively closed to more experienced researchers. If an experienced researcher is identified as the best candidate for appointment to such a STC either additional funds must be sought or, as often is the case, the scientist is appointed at a reduced salary.

  Many post-docs do not take up a career in science and it must be anticipated that a proportion will be lost through natural wastage. However, the lack of a career structure is a significant factor in this wastage. Additionally, some high calibre scientists are lost to other countries while others tolerate a number of STCs, becoming experienced and valued researchers but eventually become demoralised and leave the profession as they are unable to secure a permanent position. The lack of career structure also impacts on the proportion of women in science, which is disproportionately low despite, according to BBSRCs equal opportunities, enjoying a disproportionate success rate at the crucial BAND 6 PD appointment stage. Women are more likely to take career breaks and many never return to full-time science. A large part of the driver behind this efflux is the lack of career structure, job stability and the extreme difficulty that is encountered in regaining short-term contract employment in science after a career break of any description.

  The preponderance of STCs is impacting throughout academic science. Recruitment of PhD students is becoming increasingly difficult. This was addressed by increasing the PhD stipend, a measure akin to placing a sticking plaster on a broken leg. Students are not blind to the lack of reward in science and in particular, the lack of career structure in science and this is manifested as a low take-up of post-graduate studies. The Tory adage that you could pay scientist a pittance because they would eat the bark off the trees and still do the science will not apply if there are no scientists in the first place.


  A modern technology-based society needs a broad base of scientific knowledge. This is driven by high calibre modern research that is carried out by teams of experienced and innovative scientists. It is the degree to which these teams are transitory that is affected by the preponderance of STCs. STCs lead to the loss of experienced scientists both from science but also from project areas. This stifles innovation and the exploitation of innovation. The majority of STCs are for short three-year projects. Many programmes of research require a longer-term approach; consequently key research areas requiring a longer-term view are rarely even considered viable and if they are funded, such programmes are broken down into small units. This process frequently compromises the ability of these projects to attract continued funding. STCs are effectively an investment in British Science that allows an area of research, to be established; however, in the absence of continued funding this investment is subsequently lost. The closure of a research programme results in a loss of scientific potential to the scientific community and the UK and the displacement of experience and expertise to other research areas, which themselves may under short-term funding. It is all too frequent an occurrence that a project costing in excess of a quarter of a million pounds, which was judged to be internationally successful, is scrapped as further funding was not forthcoming in the vital few months leading up to the end of the project. The exploitation of a three-year research program is almost invariably realised toward the end of the funding period. This leaves very little leeway in which to secure funding to retain vital staff required for continuity. An additional problem is that staff on STCs are expected to live on a prayer that funding will be forthcoming in their final year. If staff on STC have dependants there is considerable pressure to apply for alternative posts before the conclusion of their current post. This leaves project supervisors with severe problems if they are to build on a projects achievements and fully realise the aims of a STC.

  Part of the justification for STCs is that they provide a competitive framework in which scientists can be judged and rewarded, but against a background of an expansion in higher education, that has been achieved without significant investment, is this the best use of an academics time? If trends in funding are examined over a period of time it is seen that funding of various universities has remained fairly constant, and that literally tens of man-years have been spent in seeking funding to essentially maintain the status quo. While it should be acknowledged that some degree of competition and oversight is necessary, this should not have the enormous impact on potential productivity that is currently occurring. It is widely accepted in the scientific community that in the general drive to become more competitive the tail is now wagging the dog. Many talented scientists do little else than apply for funding, to the great detriment of their personal research programmes. At the moment, funding assignments are made on the merits of a proposal but critically factors such as the reputation of the individual and more importantly of the academic institution are vital considerations. Mechanisms exist to grade academic institutions and their staff and consequently could be used as a measure to assign a significant proportion of the competitive budget. The overall use of this budget could be assessed under existing Research Assessment Exercises. Funds could be competed for internally allowing career management and continuity to be part of the internal assessment. Additionally a secured research budget would allow departments and institutes the stability to develop expertise and focus on centres of excellence rather than transitory success.


  A key monitor of the utility of STCs as applied to science is whether or not this approach is seen as viable in other professions; if not, why is this system so readily applied to scientific professionals? Are medical doctors expected to endure limited tenure and to move from hospital to hospital chasing grants? Is a medical doctor expected to become an internationally renowned heart surgeon only to be told the funding for that particular project is ended and he/she will have to leave those skills and retrain as a brain surgeon instead? While other professional equivalents demand career structure and high remuneration, however, the reward of job satisfaction is seen to be sufficient to attract high calibre scientists. A salutary warning should be taken from the situation in the USA where it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract Americans into careers in science when other professions offer both careers and elevated remuneration. At the moment many British scientists do value the intellectual challenge of a science career over high remuneration but often find the lack of career structure intolerable. In a society that has few resources beyond the innovation of its populace can Britain afford to deny scientists the stability of a career in which to develop both personally and professionally?


  An effective scientific career structure should be applied to all three of the following vital groups of staff that are mandatory for internationally competitive research: Firstly, senior scientists who guide research, initiate contracts and research programmes, and disseminate science to other scientists, students and the public. Secondly, experienced post-doctoral bench scientists who are able, and encouraged, to initiate research, work as a team to drive research forward, aid in generating publications and supervise junior staff and students. Thirdly, support staff who possess essential practical and managerial skills that facilitate core research activities.

  We do not propose the complete abolition of short-term competitive contracts. Support for a limited number of competitive post-doctoral grants would encourage young scientists to broaden their experience early in their careers by working in other areas of research and departments. However, we suggest that this period of employment on STC should be limited and should result in a more permanent appointment with a suitable career structure. We also suggest that the majority of funding should be assigned outside of immediate direct competition and through a system of more long-term competition. This would require a fundamental change in the way research funding is allocated. If this change does not occur there will not be available the resources to develop career structures for research scientists, which will remain transitory and unsustainable.

  Scientific funding must nurture the long-term development of science and scientists, and should acknowledge the professional status of scientists and the contribution they make to a knowledge-driven society.

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