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


Memorandum submitted by Dr M G Salter, Department of Biology, University of Leicester

  Thank you for the request to send comments on the use of short term contracts for science workers. This is undoubtedly an issue which concerns all contract researchers within the academic sector. I have tried to be honest and not complain about salaries and working conditions, which are a concern but are not the principal reason for people leaving the profession. I work in the biological sciences as a plant molecular biologist where the principal source of funding is either the BBSRC or commercial funding. I have completed a degree, a Ph.D, a far longer training period and to a higher level than for any other profession, and in addition I also have six years high level research experience. I will try to detail the issues as I see them but there is no doubt that informal conversations between scientists at meetings make me sure that my views are not unique and represent the current state of opinion within the profession. This is certainly evidenced by the number of people moving into other professions. For example, a close colleague has enrolled for a PGCE course starting this year, representing a loss of 12 years scientific education and expertise to a sector where the entrance requirement is a third class honours degree.

  I personally find myself in the position of being an experienced RA1A. There is no worse position for any professional in any discipline to my knowledge. In my case my current contract is only for 30 months because my age and experience puts me at the top of what is a modest pay scale. The reason for shortened contracts is that there is nothing in the awarding of grants to take into account RA1A's higher up the pay scale, so when moving to new contracts we are forced to have either a pay cut or a shortened contract. This is directly related to the cash limiting of BBSRC grants so should an experienced researcher apply for a position there is no means to increase the salary allowances to take account of this. As a result the work has to go exceedingly well to be completed within the shortened contract having the effect of there being an additional obstacle to success placed in front of people caused by their age and experience. The only way people can get a new contract for the full period at their proper and hard earned point in the pay scale is by being a named researcher on a grant.

  If we accept the current reality that we will have to look for other positions it creates a situation where contracts are far less effective than they should be. At the start of one of these programmes we come into a new lab (because we were evicted from our previous one at the end of a contract) and spend six months getting used to a new line of research and the ways of a new lab. We then work at full efficiency for approx 18 months before starting to look for another job for fear of impending unemployment in 12 or even six months. We can, as I have done on this occasion, work with our Principal Investigator and apply for a new grant with ourselves as a named researcher but in the BBSRC rules we can only do this once so at the end of the second grant we are then forced to leave the group. This also assumes that the second programme will be successful, I am currently working at 80 per cent salary on "soft money" while we await the lengthy review process for my grant.

  If we want to start our own group we have two options. We can apply for one of a limited number of lectureships coming up each year or alternatively we can apply for one of two fellowships, average applicant number 350, average number available 10. If you remain optimistic even in the face of those odds and spend three months writing a proposal for one of these fellowships rejection brings with it no feedback, how helpful was that experience in my training programme? Also, in contrast to our Continental European colleagues, we have to compete for both these fellowships and lectureships with scientists from all over the world. I appreciate that this increases UK competitiveness but it further depresses UK scientists who could not compete for the comparable positions in other countries.

  Should we be happy to continue working in a group, gaining in expertise and working more and more towards full efficiency as an RA1A, there is no mechanism for us to do that. Were the BBSRC to operate a system of rolling grant programmes, similar to the MRC grants for medical research in the UK or the NIH grants available in the USA where a principal investigator receives extended funding to research a defined area in an open way, then opportunities would be created for extended RA1A contracts. A researcher could then develop his or her skills in a specific area and the benefits of this specialist expertise would be immense. Obviously there should be opportunities to increase salary within the BBSRC scales, perhaps similar to the level for MRC research fellows. In this way researchers would be paid at a level which was more commensurate with their role as professional problem solvers. There would be additional benefits to using this system. The grant funding system as exercised by the research councils requires discrete pieces of work in areas where the pace of development is so fast that grants are often obsolete before they are completed. This creates artificial deadlines and ring fencing on research programmes that in reality need to be flexible to account for the pace of change. Using the more general MRC/NIH system would give the researchers room to keep at the forefront of their discipline.

  A proper balance would in my opinion be for people to be employed for their first contract within a group under the current three year system. If that individual proves to be sufficiently useful to the group then funds should be available for the Principal Investigator to employ that person on a rolling contract. It is unrealistic to, as the BBSRC suggests, expect Universities to pay the cost. This money must be available from the research councils. In doing this a level for people who for some reason are not suitable to gain there own Principal Investigators position but who do make significant contributions to the research effort would have some options other than leaving research.

  With regard to the Research Careers Initiative this letter is actually very similar to the one sent to the BBSRC when they send me a form to fill in about "careers" at the end of each contract. On neither occasion has the letter been replied to or has there been any noticeable change in the system. The clear fact is that the Research Careers Initiative is merely a smoke screen to suggest that something is being done to look after the career interests of RA1A's rather than actually doing anything even vaguely constructive. If this country is to compete with the US in research it has to utilise the expertise that it has paid to train and not squander it in the way that it currently does.

  Despite the apparent tone of this letter I remain depressed rather than angry, sure in the knowledge that I will probably have to leave the work I enjoy at the end of this or definitely the next contract. Of course if I do complete another contract I can always keep a copy of this letter and use it to reply to the Research Careers Initiative questionnaire when it arrives in three years time, a kind of research groundhog day.

10 June 2002

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