Memorandum submitted by Dr David S Stevenson,
Department of Biology, University of Leicester
1. Does the preponderance of short-term research
contracts really matter?
Initially, when embarking on a post-graduate
or post-doctoral career short-term contracts are very useful since
they allow flexibility. In the biological sciences most molecular
techniques are transferable from one sub-discipline to another
(eg from microbiology to plant biotechnology or human genetics).
Thus there is scope for expanding your knowledge base or making
adjustments to your career path. However, later on (as I will
expand on subsequently) this is an obstacle as it prevents consolidation
of a chosen path. It also promotes considerable insecurity and
resentment. After all the people concerned have studied for seven
or eight yearsoften with miserable pay during that time.
Why should we then be looking over our shoulders every two years?
2. What are the implications for researchers
and their careers?
Unless you can get a lectureship (or if a graduate,
a permanent post) you are basically stuck with no "career".
Life is a permanent worry about the next job. In the first term
or two this is a relatively minor quibble (as I have said) but
once you reach 30 you are in serious trouble (and I am 33). The
problem is simple: the majority of contracts in academia are funded
through government agenciesin my case the BBSRC. The money
for grants is reasonable (though as you'd imagine we'd all like
more). The problem is that per contract this is fixed and year
on year the pay you get increases incrementally as a reward for
good work or loyalty. You can see the problem: for a three-year
contract on a fixed grant award, the amount of money available
decreases as the person ages. Thus I am on a three-year contract
with only enough money for two and a half years. If I was a post-doctoral
worker for longer then the amount of time I could be funded for
would decrease as the income to the grant is fixed: I have become
too expensive to hire. Thus I will be compelled to do something
else very shortly: I simply cannot stay in academia and there
are not enough alternatives (such as lecturing) in my field (plant
molecular biology). The money has effectively run out.
3. Is there evidence that the present situation
causes researchers to leave?
Yes! I know of four people who left to become
teachers and several others who went into industry. One of those
was not only a successful and talented scientist but also multilingual,
an exceptional communicator and clearly of very high intelligence.
I know of several others (including myself) who wish to leave
ASAP. I considered teaching towards the end of the last contract
and, if it were not for the fact I finally decided to buy a house
and could not afford to become a trainee teacher once more, would
consider it again.
4. What would be the correct balance between
contract and permanent research staff in universities and research
I think first post-docs should be on temporary
contracts (as present) in order that they can prove their worth
and allow them to decide whether they really want to be bench
scientists. This might also be useful for women researchers eager
to start families as it could provide a natural break. However,
once that worth is proven post-doctoral researchers should be
allowed to run their own groups. Contracts can initially be extended
to five years and then on an assessable basis. This would allow
stability of employment, stability of home life (I am on my third
city since obtaining my doctorate) and a chance to set up in their
own field and become independent. At present the university system
is hierarchical with near permanent lecturers running mutable
groups of short-term contract post-docs and mixed contract groups
of graduate technicians. There is little difference in the institutions
(and I've been to the John Innes Centre and the closing IACR-Long
5. Has the Concordat and Research Careers
Initiative made any difference?
I have never heard of these!
6. How should policy move forward?
My experience of the academic system (both inside
and outside research institutions) has left me very disillusioned
and I know I am not alone. To set the scene I'll take you back
to my first post-doctoral project at the John Innes Centre (1994-1998).
This project was to identify genes in the model plant Arabidopsis.
The project was reviewed by the funding BBSRC committee in April
1997, after a written and oral presentation in Warwick University.
It received a five star appraisal. Subsequently, my supervisor,
George Coupland (now working in Germany) and I put in for a follow-up
project to extend the work done. The grant referees all approved
it. Then in November 1997 the grant was rejected. I found this
hard to believe, as did my supervisor and co-workers. I had two
months to find another job. Exactly, how should one feel after
having their work commended then rejected?
The system runs on peer-review but clearly that
appears to count for nothing. For the Committee's attention I
mention that other projects funded in the same round failed rather
miserably and yet have just received further funding. As you might
suppose several of the people recommending their follow-up funding
share grant committees. The old-boy network is alive and well
Now, to get away from my personal gripe on the
system (though I know my complaint is systematic of the way British
bioscienceand possibly the physical sciencesis run)
here is what I would do.
1. Remove the hierarchical system with group
leaders in charge of raising funding for researchers. Give post-doctoral
researchers the opportunity to raise their own capital. This would
open up the system in a similar way to the free market opening
up business. Post-docs with new ideas, arriving from the academic
base, could supplant established researchers (or add to them by
joint applications). At present post-docs are unable to write
their own grants in Universities and it is very limited in the
institutions. This has to change if the system is to improve.
There is a tendency for lecturers to rest on their laurels (to
be polite) once they are set up in university environments, or
to feed off their short-term contract post-docs for ideas. I regard
this as unacceptable. Allowing post-docs to write their own grants
also would lessen the plagiarism or theft of ideas between workers.
It is relatively easy for one post-doc to claim another's ideas
then present this to the boss while looking for another contract.
This is my key point.
2. Inside a more open and competitive system,
allow for longer term or permanent grants. This would allow security
for those starting out and for those working higher up the system.
This may appear to jar with what I've said above, but the essence
of what I mean is that the system should allow for competition
and co-operation. The latter would come from the increasing need
of researchers to combine resources. An excellent example is the
GARNet network set up the BBSRC for plant research in the UK.
This is a network of service providers that supply high-tech or
laborious technologies to the community of plant researchers.
This network necessitates both strong cooperation, while permitting
competition between groups using this service. I see a future
where a small number of such service providers (probably on a
European or global scale) service the needs of small competitive
groups of workers.
3. Technician grade workers (usually but
not exclusively graduates) should be able to get permanent, or
long-term contracts in association with the department as a whole
(as frequently many jobs are department wide and not restricted
to labs), or long-term contracts tied to their supervisors. The
latter, of course, gives them better incentive to work well for
their supervisor if their jobs are directly affected by the success
of their post-doctoral supervisor.
4. Lastly, and as stated in answer to your
questions, as a first step grants should be flexible to account
for age and experience of the workerswhether post-docs
or technicians. At present there is a considerable and growing
problem of hiring qualified people. You will not hire anyone if
they see they have a limited time to work before they effectively
become too expensive for the post. A considerable number of post-docs
aren't interested in lecturing however, they would like to run
their own groups while hopefully keeping their hands "dirty"
at the bench once in a while. The system should reflect this.
You'll note I didn't really mention pay as a
factor (aside from the age related problem of term length). The
pay is adequate although hardly competitive with industry. Contract
structure and the ability to work independently of the hierarchical
system are the priorities and I feel a more "free-market"
approach coupled to better contracting (question 2 above) that
allows for age related incremental pay increases (given a good
track record) without compromising the length of the contract.
I hope this is a useful response. I am confident that the suggestions
I've made are correct and would improve the system dramatically.
It would also, I hope, serve to limit the power of the networks
that review and fund their own (mostly) research. The 21st century
doesn't need these networks or such an out-moded hierarchical
16 June 2002