Memorandum submitted by The Royal Astronomical
Does the preponderance of short-term research
contracts really matter? Why?
In favour of this arrangement means that the
availability of short-term research workers provides flexibility
and quick response to new research initiatives. Projects are often
fixed term, and the skills and experience required may not easily
be transferred to other projects. But the situation in countries
which do not rely so much on short-term research contracts, is
that their programmes are less efficient and overall provide less
value for money. Additionally research council policy is to hire
younger Postdocs in preference and to put pressure on the holders
of rolling grants through the review process to do the same.
Against this arrangement is what happens to
those who have had short-term contracts for many years when there
are no longer suitable projects on which to work? There may, in
some institutes, be a feeling of being second class with respect
to those colleagues who have permanent positions. This effect
could be real or imagined, but either way it is damaging for those
In theory one could make a long-term career
supported on soft money, if there was a ready supply of positions
and appropriate support. In practice however, there is insufficient
soft money to ensure continuity in employment. It is unreasonable
to expect highly trained and valuable people to accept a high
risk of unemployment in their careers, especially when the financial
rewards they receive when employed are so derisory. There needs
to be a balance between numbers of short-term workers and permanent
Following a PhD, a research worker is well advised
to obtain a short-term post-doctoral position prior to making
the decision to take-up a permanent academic post. This short-term
post should provide further training in transferable skills, etc,
including teaching in HE institutes. If a committed individual
can only continue his/her academic research via a number of consecutive
short-term contracts, then the system becomes less defensible.
In this case, the number of second and further short term contracts
may need to be reduced.
The proposed "Academic Fellowships"
should only be available to those who have already had one (or
more) short-term contract research fellowships. The Academic Fellowship
(with probationary period) should lead on to a permanent position.
What are the implications for researchers
and their careers?
Beyond a certain point in their career it is
virtually impossible for a person who has been on a fixed term
contract to successfully transfer to a permanent position in a
university ie they are competing with younger/cheaper applicants
for jobs, and also that panels will often prefer to opt for "future
promise" over "experience and track record". The
consequences are that many of the most productive and imaginative
scientists move out of science and into other careers, simply
to provide for themselves and their families a reasonable salary
and level of security. This movement might be beneficial to the
community at large, but it is also important for the country that
the brightest and best scientists should have the opportunity
to have a lifetime career in science. Those opportunities are
simply too rare at present.
Is there evidence that the present situation
causes good researchers to leave?
Only for researchers up to a certain age, after
this they are trapped because if they have specialised, they may
find it difficult to find a job outside of a University/Institute.
One real problem is the low salaries for both contract and junior
permanent staff. This is making it very difficult to attract new
people into university research, and to retain them for more than
a few years.
Any university head of department can point
to many very talented people who have moved out of science because
they can no longer put up with the uncertainty of short-term employment
and the lack of opportunity to obtain longer-term positions; the
very brightest are forced to change career when at their point
of highest productivity and greatest imagination. The high international
standing of UK university research is highly vulnerable to these
losses. Although not directly relevant to the question posed,
it is absolutely clear that a career in academia (permanent or
contract) is becoming noticeably less attractive to bright graduate
What would be the right balance between contract
and permanent research staff in universities and research institutions?
There are too many conflicting constraints to
give a simple reply. Appropriate balances could be worked out
for a given subject area under a given national employment situation.
The main question is sustainabilitywho
is to pay the salary of key research staff in between projects?
There must be continuity, but the universities currently will
not fund such staff, and the research councils will only fund
contract staff who are working on specific projects. If the current
system of fixed term contracts is retained, then the question
of how to bridge key research staff from project to project, must
be considered. In a sense this would be the half way house solution
between going for permanent positions for all, and the current
In the opinion of a young Postdoc. A short contact
is good at the start of a career since it gives opportunities
for new Postdoc to become established as a researcher. From the
employer's point of view, a new Postdoc introduces fresh ideas
into the group, gives the department a chance to get to know the
Postdoc and to find out how capable he/she is away from their
PhD supervisor as an independent researcher. After one short-term
contract most Postdocs will have established themselves (or otherwise).
They will be approaching 30 years of age, many will have found
partners and perhaps have children and would not wish to move
appointment every two to three years. So short-term contracts
are NOT good for long-term careers.
A short term contract involves settling-down
time in new establishment, a period of productivity and time to
look for new "contract". In three-year cycles this becomes
very inefficient and there comes a point when a Postdoc, having
completed several short-term contracts, is in competition with
the new Postdocs. Employers choose the fresh young face because.
"Why has the ageing researcher not been offered a permanent
job by now?" He/she is now aged 40-45; do they now leave
Additionally women who have taken career breaks
for family reasons find it very difficult to compete in the present
structure of short-term contracts.
Has the Concordat and the Research Careers
Initiative made any difference?
Absolutely none at all. Universities are under
such severe financial pressures that the good intentions enshrined
in the Concordat are simply worthless. There is no evidence to
show that a single appeal to the Concordat has produced a useful
How should policy move forward?
There are two aspects.
Firstly the problem cannot be addressed in isolation,
but must be seen in the broader context of university and research
council funding. Both types of institution are in serious financial
difficulty. While this is the case, one cannot hope to attain
a more equitable situation, and the haemorrhage of expensively-trained
scientific talent on short-term support will continue. Postdoc
pay is derisory and is a key factor in PhD graduates not continuing
in academia in the UK. The relatively new factor here is student
debt which, combined with low Postdoc salaries, is a major disincentive.
A major review of higher education research and the support it
receives through research councils is urgently required.
Additionally while the above debate is interesting,
a much more important question needs to be answered. Information
needs to be disseminated about the impact of the EU Fixed Term
Workers Directive due in October 2002. If it is interpreted in
a certain way this could totally destroy the research fellowship
system operated within the UK, and on which a large fraction of
our research activity relies. Based on the committee work of one
of our senior Fellows for PPARC across the UK, nobody appears
to have any idea of how this is to be handled. It is now causing
considerable uncertainty and concern amongst the research leaders
and their contract staff. It is about time for the relevant bodies
within the UK to recognise what is likely to result from these
new EU regulations, and to explain the position to the research
24 June 2002