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


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 years—often 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 agencies—in 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 institutions?

  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 Ashton).

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 in academia.

  Now, to get away from my personal gripe on the system (though I know my complaint is systematic of the way British bioscience—and possibly the physical sciences—is 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 workers—whether 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 system.

16 June 2002

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