Memorandum submitted by the Royal Geographical
Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)
The full report of the Geography RAE Panel (2002)
drew attention to some of these issues. A comment was made on
the high levels of staff mobility between departments in today's
academic labour market and the significant number of fixed term
posts reflecting the short-termism in Universities, no doubt aggravated
by restricted funding and managerial strategies towards the RAE.
We feel that the preponderant of short-term
research contracts does matter and will become an increasingly
important issue within the RAE-driven world. There are both positive
and negative attributes to having short term contracts which we
hope we have addressed below.
(a) Why does the preponderance of short-term
research contracts really matter?
Short-term research contracts reduces research
to a contract when it is far more than that; it pressurises the
short-term employed as they need to look 12 months in advance
for their next job; it therefore can jeopardise the project through
lack of total commitment and changes in staff. Sometimes changes
in staff are at the point at which it is impossible to continue.
If this happens then either the project has to cease or the principal
investigators have to take over to the detriment to all concerned.
(b) What are the implications for researchers
and their careers?
Where staff are hoping to see research contracts
as a way into an academic job they are not only faced with the
prospect of several short term posts and the uncertainties that
go with them but, increasingly, they are carrying big debts into
posts that are poorly paid, especially in places like London.
This does nothing to help create a flow of the brightest into
university jobs and while uncertainty haunts many people in professional
jobs today they are usually being paid much more than in the university
If the above is not bad enough, the terms and
conditions under which these staff work are often pretty poor.
Today low tender costs are a clear element in the award process
of research funds. It is, therefore, not surprising to see many
"under-funded" research projects creating stressed working
conditions for all concerned. This under-funding has a number
of consequences for research staff, quite separate from those
affecting Principal Investigators (PI) and institutions. It undermines
efforts to provide staff training in research and other skills,
except where this is absolutely central to the research project
itself, thereby not helping to "grow" the individual
into becoming an adaptable and broadly-based researcher. This
can reduce their future job opportunities, including their attractiveness
to those who have lecturing jobs on offer. Moreover, for those
who wish to go down the academic route, heavy workloads because
of these conditions also limits their ability (in their spare
time even) to publish papers from earlier work (eg their doctorates).
(c) Is there evidence that the present situation
causes good researchers to leave?
Research contracts produces a situation as explained
in (a) because "under-funded" projects can lead to researchers
leaving projects soon after the analysis stage. This not only
impacts on the efficiency of research conduct (ie much writing
takes place after the official end of the project) but also reduces
the opportunities for the researcher to get the appropriate credit
at the writing stage, crucial if they want an academic job. Whether
the contract researcher gets much credit (ie the IPR due them)
through the writing stage (reports or papers) is very much a function
of the working relationship between the PI and the researcher.
Many PIs try to be helpful and share responsibility and credit,
but there are no guarantees. These arguments have been discussed
by the contract researchers themselves. The RAE Panel for Geography
was sympathetic to these kinds of arguments which are also contained
in the paper in AREA (33, pp 434-9) by Nicola Shelton et al.
(2001) which discussed the "invisibility" of most
such staff under the RAE rules, or at least how these rules were
interpreted by departments. Contract staff often feel that others
were getting the "credit" for much of the work they
Do researchers leave for these reasons? Inevitably
some do but we feel that the real issue is whether they feel able/can
progress up the career ladder ie the availability of jobs in departments
where they want to work. The best geography departments still
have plenty of applicants but here comes the "double bind",
they need to demonstrate publications.
(d) What would be the right balance between
contract and permanent researcher staff in universities and research
This will vary given the nature of the institution.
There are clearly institutions that could support a higher percentage
of contract research staff than others. However, if we were asked
to give a balance then between 25 per cent and 30 per cent contract
to 75 to 70 per cent permanent research staff.
(e) Has the Concordat and the Research Careers
Initiative made any difference?
From our experience, neither the Concordat nor
the Research Careers Initiative have really worked because it
was never funded! In the case of one five star geography department,
they state "we have done what we can and after about 5-7
years, successful research officers who wish to stay largely in
research will get a fraction of their salary (up to 50 per cent)
paid from Funding Council sources to give them some greater security,
if the department and institution can afford it. It is part of
the department's policy of building and rewarding research capacity
and in effect we can only do it because of our RAE success."
We would doubt if many other geography departments can afford
it because of the relatively limited pools of research funding
available to bid for and the general risks to all parties.
10 June 2002