Memorandum submitted by Royal Society
1. The Royal Society is pleased to have
the opportunity to comment on this important subject, which is
one in which it has taken a deep interest over the past 20 years,
and believes that it has made a significant contribution to easing
some of the structural problems associated with the career routes
for university researchers. While there may be short-term solutions
to some of the current problems faced by contract research staff
(CRS), the issue needs to be tackled within the wider context
of a radical review of the internal structure of our universities
and their deployment of human resources. In the time available
it has not been able to assemble all of the material that it would
have wished to present, nor to undertake any surveys of CRS, and
this note therefore confines itself to an outline view on the
future development of human resource aspects of university research.
The Society hopes to contribute to the on-going debate on this
topic over the coming years.
2. Over the past four decades, the university
system has gone through a major re-structuring to accommodate
the massive increase in the number of students undertaking higher
education courses. Since the start of the 1960s the proportion
of young people entering universities has increased from about
five per cent to 30 per cent now, with Government plans to increase
this percentage further. This has been accompanied by an increase
in the number of mature students taking the opportunity to partake
in the higher education that they missed when they left full time
education. The number of undergraduate students has risen from
some 400,000 in the mid 1960s to 1,800,000 now.
3. The number of universities has risen
several fold between 1960 and the present time, although much
of this expansion has been through conferring university status
first on the Colleges of Advanced Technology and then the Polytechnics
and the larger Colleges of Higher Education, which had previously
had parallel major roles in the provision of higher education.
Furthermore, the size of many established institutions has increased
significantly since the 1960s, as has the complexity of their
4. This massive increase in the number of
students could only be afforded by significant decreases in the
unit cost of State provision both for tuition and student maintenance.
This, and the consequential need for universities to increase
their income from other sources has had a significant impact on
the universities in a number of areas:
(a) the need to find efficiency savings to
achieve the required expansion of within the lower unit costs;
(b) less stability and certainty in the level
of public funding for teaching;
(c) an increase in the proportion of short
term funding associated with:
contracts for from the private
sector for in-service training;
fixed term grants for from the
Research Councils and the charities (in the bio-medical area)
contracts for research from the
(d) in some institutions a major increase
in the income devoted to research.
(e) the emergence and rapid growth of new
academic departments, and relatively small growth in some of the
traditional subject areas eg chemistry, physics and mathematics.
Indeed, in some universities there have been closures of traditional
discipline departments, either as a result of reduced student
demand, or of low rating in the RAE, or a combination of these.
Other departments have been merged with related disciplines, sometimes
as a result of the establishment of completely new academic structure.
5. The financial pressures on universities
have had two major impacts on their human resource structure.
First, a major decrease in the pay relativities of academic staff
compared with almost all other professions; and secondly a major
increase in the proportion of staff on fixed term contracts, as
opposed to as indefinite contracts with the full protection provided
by employment law. The contrast is even greater when compared
with the tenure enjoyed by established members of academic staff
or faculty, even though tenure was weakened in the 1980s to ensure
that staff could be made redundant on the grounds of severe financial
6. Now that the expansion of higher education
has slowed considerably, this is an opportune time for the universities
to reconsider their overall structure to ensure that it is appropriate
for the 21st Century. In particular, the sector's treatment of
its human resources must recognise that UK universities have to
compete on a world level not only for students, but also for staff.
Unless this is achieved, it is difficult to see how universities
can survive as vibrant organisations, capable also of attracting
their fair share of our brightest young people to carry forward
higher education to subsequent generations.
7. While the Royal Society is deeply concerned
about both teaching and research within our universities, the
remainder of this note largely concentrates on the human resource
aspects of research in the research-intensive universities, within
the context of the overall structure of the university. It deals
mainly with postdoctoral CRS, although there are other important
CRS supporting research activity.
UK RESEARCH AND
8. The majority of basic and strategic research
in the UK is undertaken in the universities rather than Government
Laboratories, although in some subjects there is a small, but
important contribution from Research Council and independent not-for-profit
research institutes. This arrangement has probably contributed
significantly to the high standing of UK research and its cost
effectiveness (May 1998), and in this the UK is similar to the
US and significantly different from France and Germany. Those
wishing to pursue basic and strategic research as a career therefore
have to look almost exclusively to the universities and research
9. There is an important applied research
and development sector within UK industry and Government research
establishments, and other science based professional careers in
the private and Government sectors. All of these depend on an
adequate supply of the high quality university trained researchers
at all levels up to post-doctoral positions and beyond. A constant
supply of teachers is also required elsewhere within the higher
education sector and in other areas of education, where it is
essential to ensure that science and mathematics are taught by
talented and enthusiastic graduates in the particular subject.
Finally, highly trained researchers in all disciplines find satisfying,
and often well paid, positions well outside their specialisms
such as in general management, accountancy, finance and the public
services. It is important to recognise the value both to the country
and to science and engineering of having science and engineering
expertise throughout the economy. Hence there is a wide range
of worthwhile and challenging alternative career paths for academic
researchers at all stages of their career.
10. University research is funded through
three main streams:
(i) Funding Councils' block grant;
(ii) short term grants from the Research
Councils and, particularly in the biomedical area, the research
(iii) contracts from industry and Government
11. Overall there has been a significant
increase in university research expenditure, but much of research
expenditure is concentrated within 20 or so universities. Over
the past 20 years, the proportion funded through the Funding Councils'
block grant has fallen, even taking into account the dual support
transfer from the Funding Councils to the Research Councils at
the beginning of the 1990s. Hence more research has been funded
on short-term money. Furthermore, since much of this money is
accounted for at a departmental level and below there may be insufficient
scope for handling fluctuations, with examples of world-class
research teams being broken up through failure to obtain follow
on grants or even because of delays to secure a grant.
12. Another important factor is that the
expansion in research activity in many disciplines has been greater
than the expansion in student numbers, and it is the latter that
broadly determines the number of established academic posts within
a Department. This has resulted in established members of academic
staff at research-intensive universities supervising an increasing
number of research assistants.
13. In the next two sections we outline
the requirements of universities and of the researchers themselves
and then bring these together in a concluding section.
14. The research active universities need
a range of researchers to maintain and develop their research
standing, including already recognised world class researchers,
to whom they need to be able to offer attractive established posts;
bright up-and-coming research leaders of the future; and support
staff at all levels such as post doctoral research assistants,
PhD students, graduate research assistants and technicians.
15. The traditional structure of university
research is one based on established members of academic staff
with both teaching and research responsibilities, who are supported
by postdoctoral research assistants/associates and technicians
together with research students. This structure is changing, however,
with the formation of larger research groups than hitherto and
the formation of formal or virtual research units, particularly
in cross disciplinary areas, usually headed by a members of established
academic staff, but sometimes by a specially recruited full time
director. At the most senior levels some leading research academics
have sought to concentrate on their research and have obtained
appointments as "Research Professors", some of which
are provided by external funding (eg The Society's Research Professors).
16. With this varied and changing structure,
universities have a wide range of requirements for postdoctoral
researchers. First and foremost they require a constant flow of
young researchers from across the world to bring in new ideas
and techniques. They also need to identify high-flying researchers
who will be the academic leaders of the future. Finally there
will be a need for competent postdoctoral researchers and professional
17. Hence universities need to have the
(a) maintain the throughput of young post
(b) offer a career path to attract and retain
(c) offer a career structure to other more
18. We return to these when we have considered
the needs of the researchers themselves.
19. Suitably qualified researchers undertake
postdoctoral research for a number of reasons, which will vary
as they get older. At the start the main reason is to seek further
research experience and to gain recognition as a researcher in
their own right, primarily through publications and participation
in scientific conferences, ie to enhance their CV in pursuit of
their future career. For those seeking to continue in academic
research the main goal is to secure an established academic post,
and there should be a recognised route to this end. In particular,
researchers need the opportunity to show that they can initiate
new research projects and lead research teams. This can be achieved
through suitable positions within large research groups, or through
opportunities to pursue their own research.
20. The sheer numbers of postdoctoral CRS
means that only a proportion of those entering can expect to secure
an established academic research and teaching post, or a longer
term research post within a university research group, or unit.
For those postdoctoral researchers who have reached their early
thirties without securing an indefinite contract, working on a
series of fixed term contracts is clearly undesirable, not least
because of the adverse effect that this can have obtaining a mortgage.
At that point, there needs to be satisfactory routes to other
careers in researchin Research Council or Government Research
Institutes or in industry, in scientifically based professions
outside R&D in the public and private sectors, in teaching
outside higher education or in other non science careers in management
finance etc. This means access to high quality relevant careers
guidance and vocational training, with the development of generic
skills such as management and communication.
21. Not everyone will wish, or be able to
continue a postdoctoral research career without a break, and there
must be suitable opportunities for re-entry, which will require
opportunities to catch up with developments both in the science
and in relevant cases the underpinning technological support for
22. Finally, there will be some who wish
to continue with fixed-term contract appointments for a range
of personal reasons, and so a limit to the number of fixed term
research appointments that can be held could well be unpopular.
However, this should be seen as the exception rather than the
rule, and consideration should be given to career counselling
in such cases.
23. An international perspective on this
would be instructive, but at the present time most counties appear
to be wrestling with the problems of early career progression
into established academic posts and other human resources and
other structural problems facing their universities.
24. Vibrancy of research requires a balance
of new and more experienced researchers, and a range of different
types of post-doctoral and other research positions. Universities
require flexibility to ensure that the system retains the throughput
of new post-doctoral researchers and does not consist of an aging
cohort of researchers with little prospect of career progression.
The following provides a perspective on the three categories of
CRS considered in the recent Research Careers Initiative report
25. Hence we believe that there is a continuing
role for fixed-term post-doctoral CRS posts in university research,
this is a growing trend in other areas of graduate employment,
especially in the early years. In the university sector fixed
term contracts should be seen primarily for those starting off
on their research career. These contracts should rarely be for
less than two years duration and the norm should be three; the
inefficiency of very fixed-term contracts needs to be more widely
recognised. These fixed term posts will largely be associated
with research grants and contracts under the direction of established
members of academic staff. These are the apprenticeship positions
and there should be an expectation that after two or at most three
of these positions postdoctoral researchers will have moved to
another part of the academic system or on to another career path.
It is important to be clear that neither universities nor individual
principal investigators should exploit staff on fixed term contracts,
and that they have a duty of care for their staff's future careers
wherever these may be. Hence, it is important for universities
to do more than lip service to the provisions of the Research
Concordat, especially with regard to various leave provisions,
access to relevant professional careers guidance, and efforts
should be made to increase the level of esteem associated with
these posts. We consider these and other points further below.
26. Within the universities, it is essential
that there should be recognised further steps, available through
competition to take postdoctoral CRS into other more permanent
employment within the sector, either in a position where they
can have an opportunity to develop their skills, and external
recognition, as an independent researcher, or in some longer term
support or infrastructure role.
27. For the most gifted researchers, who
will be candidates for being the research leaders of the future,
there must be longer term employment prospects, either directly
into established teaching and research academic posts, or to personal
research fellowships. The latter should be designed as "tenure
track" appointments. Both institution and central bodies
have a role to play here. The universities should consider establishing
such posts in order to attract the highest quality postdoctoral
fellows in particular Departments, possibly in conjunction with
the Funding and Research Councils. There is also a role for more
centrally funded posts of this type, where the researcher has
greater freedom to move to different institutions. The Royal Society's
URF scheme, for example, supports some 300 high quality scientists
across the disciplines. In these university or centrally supported
fellowships, the holder has the opportunity to develop his own
independent career, with the possibility of applying for grants
for postdoctoral research assistants. It allows researchers to
develop their career often to the stage where they can apply for
more senior academic posts at reader or even professorial level.
Although we have called these positions "tenure track",
this is not to imply that this should be the only way into an
established post at a research-intensive university. Universities
will wish to appoint from a range of candidates including also
those in fixed term CRS position, from Research Council Institutes,
industry and abroad.
28. Within large research groups there is
also a need for researchers at postdoctoral level who can continue
in a support role, but on a more secure basis. There are many
areas where it is important to retain expertise, especially in
techniques, within a team. Hence universities should consider
funding a proportion of postdoctoral research posts on an indefinite
basis, as senior research officer positions. These posts should
also be filled though open advertisements. As indicated above,
the arguments about the financial impropriety of funding indefinite
contracts on "soft" money need to be examined carefully,
as the university as a whole should be able to even out fluctuations,
although this may require consideration of the way that grants
are devolved to departments and perhaps involve discussions with
the Research Councils.
29. The EU directive on fixed-term work
will have implications on contract researchers, particularly in
terms of fixed-term contracts, redundancy pay, and general employment
30. Irrespective of this, the universities
must reconsider their human resource arrangements taking account
of the Research Concordat and the points set out below.
31. The future of the RAE is under discussion,
but if it is retained in some way or other, it could be used as
a means to ensure that CRS are properly guided and trained. The
details need developing, but quantitative indicators of career
paths for ex-CRS could be made available for consideration by
32. Women are about 30 per cent more likely
than men to be employed on a fixed-term contract (HESA data, 2000-01)
and yet are particularly poorly catered for by the provisions
of these contractsmaternity leave and flexibility in terms
of part-time work or job sharing is rare. It has been shown (ETAN,
2000) that one of the key factors in ensuring that women remain
in higher education employment is flexibility of working practices.
The Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship Scheme, though open
to both men and women, has proved particularly attractive to women
as its flexible terms allow for career breaks and part-time working
(see Annexe 1).
Careers guidance and relevant training
The lack of adequate career guidance and support
has been highlighted ("Realising our potential" White
Paper, Roberts report 2002) as a major deficiency of the current
system. Improvements need to be made at institutional level, as
well as through encouraging staff themselves to take a more proactive
interest in their career development. As indicated above, CRS
do not form one homogeneous groupthey have a variety of
skills and aspirations. Both Bett and Roberts reports suggest
that there is room for many institutions to reduce their use of
fixed-term contracts, and distinguishing more appropriately between
types of CRS would help to identify where more permanent contracts
could be usefully offered (to Research Associates, for example).
Better and ongoing career advice is needed to raise awareness
of outside opportunities and to motivate staff to better shape
their own careers. More structured and comprehensive training
should also be instituted by the universities as part of ongoing
33. Efforts should be made to consult regularly
with CRS who, by definition, form an ever-changing group, in order
that the community can inform strategic decisions about its future.
This should include some CRS representation on RCI committees
and on university bodies. A recent article by a current Royal
Society URF, who has had experience of shorter-term contracts,
is attached at Annexe 2.
Research Support Networks
34. Contract-research staff in some universities
have established departmental support networks. These are valuable
mechanisms for sharing information, improving communication with
management and offering support. We would encourage these to be
supported in all university departments.
Good Practice Guidelines
35. The RCI published a guide to best practice
in October 1998. All universities should be made aware of these
and Research Councils should encourage and support examples of
best practice where it is evidenced.
Should CRS be allowed to apply for Research Council
36. The are arguments for opening up Research
Council grants to contract researchers, allowing them to apply
for funds to cover their own salaries as well as the additional
research costs. Some fixed term researchers have good ideas and
have to rely on persuading permanent members of staff to apply
for the grant and then employ the research using the awarded funds.
Furthermore, it has been argued that the fact that grant schemes
are not open to researchers on fixed-term contracts compounds
the problem of an under-representation of women in positions of
37. On the other hand, most scientific research
requires significant infrastructure support and commitment by
the home institution. This is difficult to achieve for researchers
who do not have a formal link to the university. We believe that
rather than opening up Research Council grant schemes, such applications
need to be handled either through existing or new fellowship schemes,
where the infrastructure arrangements can be confirmed through
agreement between the university and the funding body.
38. Finally, those researchers on fixed-term
contracts wishing to take a career break, many of whom will be
women leaving to have children, try to return to their fields
through CRS posts, but with no assurance of finding work and much
less support than those on permanent contracts. Better mechanisms
for re-entry are required possibly building on the pioneering
work of the Daphne Jackson scheme.
Bett (1999). Independent review of higher
education pay and conditions: Report of a committee chaired by
Sir Michael Bett, Stationery Office, May 1999.
ETAN (2000). Science policies in the European
Union: Promoting excellence through mainstreaming gender equality,
European Commission, 2000.
May (1998). The Scientific Investments of
Nations, Robert M. May. American Association for the Advancement
of Science, July 1998.
Realising our Potential White Paper (1993). Realising
our potential: A Strategy for Science, Engineering and Technology,
RCI (2001). Research Careers Initiative
3rd (Interim) Report, September 2001.
Roberts (2002). The supply of people with
science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills: The Report
of Sir Gareth Roberts' Review, The Stationery Office, 2002.