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


Memorandum submitted by the Royal Academy of Engineering


  This paper draws on views submitted by over 50 of The Academy's Fellows, many of whom hold senior positions in university engineering departments.

  The Academy holds longstanding concerns about the difficulties faced by British universities in recruiting and retaining the best young talent for their research programmes. In February 2002, The Academy published Doctoral level research students in engineering: a national concern, a report examining the shortage of high-quality British applicants for PhD positions in engineering departments. The Academy also endorses the recommendations of Sir Gareth Roberts' report to HM Treasury on the supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills.

  The issues covered by that report link closely with many of those covered by the present inquiry, which considers the situation in research at post-doctoral level. Failure to tackle these problems would weaken the country's future capacity for innovation and wealth-creation.

  The Academy supports high-quality research by promoting an exchange of personnel between academic institutions and industry. Programmes such as The Academy's Industrial Secondment Scheme provide opportunities for contact and exchange of ideas between academics and industrialists. By keeping academics abreast of the latest ideas, research techniques and challenges facing industry, these schemes help to strengthen both teaching and research in British universities.


  1.1  The short answer is a resounding "yes". It is not short-term contracts per se, but the gross imbalance between the availability of short-term and long-term positions that is causing many problems in our academic system. The Academy is particularly concerned by the disillusionment of many of our brightest researchers who are leaving engineering and science because they are unable to progress beyond a series of short-term positions or develop their own research programmes.

1.2  Benefits of short-term contracts—if used correctly

  1.2.1  Short-term contracts have an important role to play in the British higher education system. It is healthy for industry and academia to have a "transient core" of young researchers looking to move on into industry or into established academic posts. For young researchers looking to gain experience after completing a doctorate, or in the case of a specific project to be carried out over a relatively short timescale, a short-term contract can be an ideal arrangement.

  1.2.2  There is a strong argument that researchers "burn out" or become stuck in a rut. A short-term contract may be the most effective means of getting the best out of them before they move on to supervise research or teach.

1.3  Misuse of short-term contracts

  1.3.1  Regrettably, the use of short-term contracts is not being restricted to these specific purposes for which they are so well designed. Instead, short-term contracts, which rarely extend beyond three years and can be less than two years in duration, have become commonplace for all manner of research-based academic positions funded by the Research Councils. This abuse is now causing serious damage to academic engineering research.

1.4  Central problem—lack of long-term positions

  1.4.1  In an ideal world, newly-qualified post-doctoral researchers would gain valuable experience on a single short-term contract and then move to a permanent position. In practice, permanent positions are in short supply and, in many cases, the salaries compare poorly with those available in industry, commerce and finance.

  1.4.2  The inevitable result is that researchers find themselves applying for a series of short-term positions and then leaving academia when they find that such a position is no longer compatible with either their personal commitments or their career aspirations.

  1.4.3  Key problems include the following:

    —  Quality of researchers. The current system succeeds in the rather limited objective of providing researchers at a minimal cost, but it fails to ensure that our research system is built around the best and most ambitious brains capable of generating genuinely new ideas and new industries.

    —  Overseas researchers. So unattractive is the short-term research contract that very often the better PhD students do not apply for it. Increasingly the trend in UK universities has been for UK nationals to avoid short-term research, leaving positions to be filled by candidates from overseas—often of outstanding quality.

  1.4.4  For applicants from the third world, the salaries on offer at British universities are relatively attractive. We are creating a research community, which is dominated by the intellectual cream of other nations.

  1.4.5  This approach gets the research done but creates a new set of issues if the researcher does not wish to return to his native country. Conversely, if the researcher does return home at the end of the contract, the UK has "lost" its investment in the researcher's knowledge and expertise.

  1.4.6  With the vast majority of research positions in UK universities now filled by overseas personnel, there must be major concern that our engineering departments will suffer a catastrophic decline over the next decade.

    —  Less integrated into the Department. As short-term contract staff are not involved in the development of the concept and methodology of the research project, they have a lesser sense of "ownership" of the work. They may feel less inclined to become integrated into the general life of the department because they feel that they are "just passing through".

  Researchers on short-term contracts inevitably feel an acute sense of insecurity. Despite being the engine room of the UK's research activity, many are made to feel that they are "second-class citizens".

    —  Lack of continuity. Short-term contracts lead to poor continuity on research programmes.

  Given the preponderance of staff on short-term contracts, many research programmes are condemned to repeated interruption, upheaval and inefficiency. Since many of the most important discoveries stem from research sustained over a long period of time, it must be a particular concern that key research staff change every three to four years because they have left to pursue careers elsewhere or because the Research Councils are unable to provide funding at suitable salary levels.

    —  Bridging between contracts. Although many Fellows drew attention to the difficulties inherent in attempting to "bridge" between contracts, a small number have been able to develop new funding techniques to overcome these difficulties. For example, institutions that have built up financial reserves have been able to use these funds to provide bridging finance to support staff between contracts, thereby boosting the stability of the team and the retention of staff.

  The rolling contracts model provides a variation on this theme. It involves maintaining a pool of researchers who can be employed flexibly on a range of projects according to their skills and interests. They will be employed beyond the duration of the project, and can thus contribute fully to its completion. Moreover, they have a more immediate interest in the dissemination and further development of the research programme.

  One successful "rolling contract" model involves awarding grants for five years, with an option to renew them after three. In cases where the renewal bid is unsuccessful, the researcher still has two years of funding left which allows time to resubmit or to seek support from elsewhere.

  Although these bridging arrangements can be ideal for supporting a researcher between a first and second short-term contract, they should not be used as a means of keeping researchers on a long series of short-term deals. As argued below ("Danger of repeat short-term contracts") short-term contracts are best used as a career stepping stone, not as a long-term career path.

    —  Only 18 months of maximum effectiveness. The typical duration of a short-term contract is three years, but its very nature makes it difficult for the researcher to operate with maximum effectiveness for the whole of the period. All too often, the first year is spent settling in and the last six months are spent worrying about a new position or the possibility of contract renewal. This leaves only around 18 months for truly productive work. It is not uncommon for research staff to leave the project before its completion if they have a chance of employment elsewhere.

    —  Less "blue sky" research. The constant turnover of staff makes it difficult for departments to plan for the long term and undermines their capacity to engage in "blue sky" research. There are even examples of expensive equipment lying unused as the key skills required to operate it have evaporated with the loss of researchers from the department.

    —  Danger of repeat short-term contracts. The most serious problems arise with the continued use of short-term contracts for the same individual. Career progression can become very difficult for those who find themselves trapped on one short-term deal after another and for this reason alone several Fellows warned strongly about the damage done both to research and researchers by the present over-reliance on repeated short-term contracts.


2.1  Distinguish between science and engineering

  2.1.1  It is important to distinguish clearly between the situation in science and in engineering. In the former, progression from undergraduate to postgraduate to post-doctorate to (perhaps) longer term research to (perhaps) an academic position is very much the norm. This contrasts sharply with engineering, where the career progression often involves a period away from the University and a "permanent" research career is not seen as the best option for a good quality person.

2.2  A career path in research?

  2.2.1  Researchers can see for themselves that Professors in engineering departments have not, in general, travelled the research route to a chair. As one Fellow indicated, his five star rated department has seen only one such appointment in the last 30 years.

  2.2.2  Researchers need to have a defined career path with comparability of esteem to academics. Some Fellows argued that it is possible to achieve this within current structures, although it is clear that this is the exception to the rule.

  2.2.3  For example, the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds takes a twin-track approach, offering a career path in research (with the possibility of transferring to a lecturer grade at any stage) and also maintaining strong links with the consultancy profession, which is the most common alternative source of employment for its staff. In both cases, staff are encouraged to develop transferable skills, such as project management.

2.3  Guard against repeat short-term contracts

  2.3.1  In the long-term, a series of research contracts is not an attractive option, either for the academic institution or, indeed, for the researcher. A researcher with a list of short-term contracts on his CV usually has poor career prospects and is regarded as at risk of becoming "institutionalised". The almost complete lack of senior and well-paid research posts in universities means that career development opportunities are minimal.

  2.3.2  In the vast majority of cases, it would be unwise for a researcher to continue on short-term contracts past the age of 32 because, by then, he or she is becoming too expensive as a researcher and less attractive in the employment market for permanent jobs.

  2.3.3  After a series of short-term contracts, possibly in different universities or departments, some contract staff emerge with only a minimal level of broader personal development. Given that there are far fewer traditional academic posts than there are contract research staff, the majority must look for career paths elsewhere. It is therefore important that their skills are developed with future employment in mind.


3.1  Low salaries the key issue

  3.1.1  There is no doubt that low salaries throughout academia represent a much greater obstacle to recruiting and retaining the best young talent than the system of short-term research contracts.

  3.1.2  Researchers are well aware that an academic career will continue to leave them relatively poorly paid, even if they progress to a chair. Whether on permanent contracts or short-term deals, academics across the board are deeply concerned by what they perceive to be a growing gap between their own salaries and those available in the private sector.

  3.1.3  Particularly in the South-East, the salaries attached to short-term research contracts have simply not kept pace with the cost of living. For many researchers, affording the rent on reasonable accommodation presents major difficulties. Securing a mortgage may be virtually impossible.

  3.1.4  One Fellow cited the example of a researcher in a buoyant area of engineering who was on a salary of £35,000, including a special "market comparability allowance", leaving for an industrial job at £70,000 plus car and allowance. Clearly there is a conflict between the need to pay market comparable salaries and the national salary scales for Research Assistants. Some universities attempt to tackle the problem by promoting staff to higher grades, but this often raises serious questions about whether the promotion criteria have been properly satisfied.

3.2  Low salaries a deterrent to starting on academic ladder

  3.2.1  It is not simply that low salaries encourage people to leave short-term research posts early or make it difficult to recruit for such positions. In fact, the key difficulty lies at a much earlier rung on the academic career ladder—getting people to embark on engineering PhD studies in the first place.

  3.2.2  Many potentially excellent researchers have already left academia for the private sector before reaching the doctoral stage. There is a perception that it is the second or third tiers of intellects that are prepared to stay in universities to become engineering PhD students and then researchers.

3.3  Role of five-year fellowships

  3.3.1  One of the most effective means of sorting those with the drive to devise and follow research programmes in their own right from those simply "doing what they are told" is the five-year research fellowship, as offered by The Academy's own post-doctoral research fellowship scheme (and similar schemes operated by EPSRC and by the Royal Society). An increase in the number of positions available through these schemes would be very effective in encouraging the brightest and best to pursue research—especially if accompanied by some industrial funding (perhaps in the form of an enhancement to the basic salary).

3.4  Frustration and uncertainty

  3.4.1  In addition to purely financial concerns, frustration and uncertainty are frequently cited as significant factors in causing researchers on short-term contracts to abandon academia.

  3.4.2  Around 20 per cent leave through frustration at the uncertainty of life on contracts, although dynamic and cohesive research groups tend to have greater success in retaining staff.

  3.4.3  Short-term researchers inevitably feel temporary. They expect to move on after one or two contracts, so it should be no surprise that they do so. The low number of long-term positions provides little incentive to remain in academia.


4.1  Current situation

  4.1.1  Although the precise picture varies from one institution to the next, it is clear that very few researchers are employed on permanent contracts. At some universities, 100 per cent of researchers are on short-term deals. At others, the figure is 75 or 80 per cent.

4.2  An ideal ratio

  4.2.1  Most Fellows would be content to see short-term contracts continue as the basis of employment for the overwhelming majority of research staff. Although it is difficult to find a consensus on the ideal ratio, a figure in the range between 80 per cent short-term / 20 per cent long-term to 50 per cent short-term / 50 per cent long-term would command a reasonable amount of support.

  4.2.2  Much as some in academia would like to see a rather higher proportion of permanent staff, there are good reasons for keeping this element relatively small in number. Tenured staff can become intellectually lazy; there are many examples of high-calibre tenured staff becoming unproductive well before their 50s.

  4.2.3  It is important not to rely entirely on short-term staff as there are some areas of work, such as blue-sky research, for which permanent staff are better suited. The dictates of peer review requirements and other pressures associated with short-term industrial applications tend to limit the innovative capacity of short-term researchers. Hence we need to retain a cadre of permanent researchers with the freedom to engage in innovative work. They should be flexible enough to move from project to project and develop a research career while the institution takes on grants and projects.

  4.2.4  It should be noted that a preponderance of short-term contracts may actually be a sign of an institution's success. Institutions that win large numbers of research contracts inevitably find themselves recruiting large numbers of researchers to carry out the work. Most of these individuals will be employed on short-term contracts. So the most research-active institutions tend to employ the largest numbers of short-term researchers.

4.3  Limit number of short-term contracts

  4.3.1  There is a broad consensus that researchers should not be engaged on a long series of short-term contracts. In many cases, one three-year contract should be sufficient for the deficiencies of the three-year PhD to be overcome, for the researcher to decide whether or not to continue in research and for his or her potential to be established. After this, a normal employment contract could be offered.

  4.3.2  Although the above need not be a hard and fast rule, a sensible guide would be that people should have no more than two three-year contracts before being offered semi-permanent employment or—at the very least—a five-year contract. Ideally, no one should be on a short-term contract beyond the age of 32.


  5.1  The majority view among Fellows of this Academy is that the Concordat and Research Careers Initiative have made some difference to the way in which researchers on short-term contracts are treated within British academia. A number of Fellows were completely unaware of the Concordat's existence—further evidence that it has failed to make the desired impact.

  5.2  It would be wrong simply to blame this disappointing state of affairs on inertia among academics. Many academics wish to support the initiatives proposed in the Concordat but are unable to do so because of a lack of resources or due to the absence of a clear university-wide policy on research staff.

  5.3  The Concordat has not made an impact on one of the key difficulties surrounding contract researchers—providing them with continuity of funding. Clearly EPSRC is not able to meet this cost, which leaves industry as the only alternative source. Industry is understandably reluctant to fund blue-sky research.

  5.4  Although limited, the Concordat's impact has brought some modest benefits. For example, many institutions now recognise contract research staff as a valuable resource to be nurtured with career and skill development programmes. Many now recognise contract research staff on a par with academic staff for many purposes.

  5.5  The Concordat has also had some impact in ensuring that departments do not exploit their staff. More academic institutions now recognise the importance of developing their employees' skillsets so that researchers do not end a contract with only a narrow specialism to offer to a future employer.


  6.1  Any reform must address the central issue of research funding and the under-supply of permanent academic posts. To tackle only the relatively narrow questions posed by the present consultation would be to miss some very important wider points.

  6.2  Nevertheless, there are some specific measures that could be taken to improve the lot of the contract researcher, and The Academy would hope that any revision of policy would include at least some of the following points.

    —  There is a clear need for more generous funding for research. The Chancellor's speech on 10 June about the central role that science and engineering research must play in boosting Britain's future productivity sent out encouraging signals, but must be backed up by clear commitments in the next Comprehensive Spending Review. Extra funding should be earmarked for research.

    —  The Government must address the difficulties faced by British universities in attracting UK nationals into engineering research. More and more posts are filled by non-UK staff, most of whom leave the UK eventually.

    —  There is an argument that the short-term nature of these contracts should be reflected in a higher rate of remuneration than for tenured positions. This would be standard practice in industry—why not in academia?

    —  There should be a substantial increase in five year research fellowships sponsored by major engineering companies, where the sponsoring company adds perhaps £10,000 to the salary on offer. The Academy already runs a small number of schemes, such as its Senior Research Fellowships, which combine Academy and industrial funding. The Academy would be pleased to expand this programme, given the necessary resources. The Academy is also looking to expand its Post-doctoral Research Fellowship scheme, which is fully funded and targeted at the best young researchers.

    —  Some Fellows favour concentrating research funding on those universities with Research Assessment Exercise ratings of four, five and five star. Lesser institutions would lose out, but there is simply no need for every university to be engaged in advanced research.

    —  A variant of this proposal would be a drastic cut-back in the number of engineering departments and associated researchers, with those remaining paid much more. This would transform the retention problem. Given that a good researcher is many times more productive than an average one, the impact on output would be minimal.

    —  There is, however, a range of views on the merits of decoupling research and teaching. The Academy is currently considering undertaking a study of the future of engineering research in the UK, which would investigate these questions in more detail.

    —  EPSRC should follow the example of other research councils by allowing contract researchers to apply for research contracts in their own names. Many researchers cite this as the greatest barrier in developing their own careers. EPSRC refuses to allow researchers to be named on its grants if any part of their salary is met from EPSRC funds. Yet experience in managing research projects should be a key element in the career development of research staff. EPSRC should at least be prepared to fund time spent managing a project and hence gaining experience At present, many researchers have to get a member of the university-funded staff to submit proposals to EPSRC on their behalf.

June 2002

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