Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-90)



Mr McWalter

  80. I am a bit perplexed. The previous group said this as well, the Roberts Report is no help. Actually the Roberts Report envisages that, okay, after an initial period when one has a fixed term contract—and a lot of jobs are for a probationary period or whatever, just to check people out—it then suggests the research associate positions become, as it were, proper permanent jobs, in so far as any job is these days. In the private sector you can have a financial shake up and lose your job as well. I cannot understand why you are then saying, and the previous group said as well, this is not helpful. I would have thought somebody from the outside would think this is exactly what is needed.
  (Dr Link) There is a proposal to implement three trajectories, one with the aspect in the industry, one so-called an academic and one—a research associate.

  81. Yes, it is the third I am talking about.
  (Dr Link) The research associate trajectory defines what today we call a technician specialising in using a particular technique and so on.

  82. I see.
  (Dr Link) These people even today are offered permanent contracts by universities because they form a technical, supportive part of the experimental research. The group you are probably interested in is the so-called academic and in this particular trajectory a short term contract is still preserved.
  (Dr Hill) Could I just come in on that question. You mentioned the fact that most jobs have a permanent appointment with a probationary period.

  83. Yes.
  (Dr Hill) Why can that not be the case for contract research staff?

  84. That is what I am suggesting.
  (Dr Link) Exactly.
  (Dr Hill) That is not really what is recommended in the Roberts Report.
  (Dr Bradburne) We do not need a probation period of ten years.
  (Dr Link) I had a probationary period of 20 years. Taking into account that I came to this country invited and as a senior in the first place I think this is the longest probationary period I have ever had anywhere.

  Dr Turner: Who do you three blame for this?


  85. You cannot come through what you have come through without feeling a little bitterness here and there surely?
  (Dr Hill) In terms of blame it is difficult to know because so many decisions are made so far above my head.

  86. What I mean is this is not a new problem. The advance of these short term contracts has gone on and on through governments for some time. It is part and parcel of the universal way of life now. You must think somebody somewhere has to break this. Do you think individual universities could do it if they wanted?
  (Dr Hill) Yes, they have. The Robert Gordon University has actually started to employ contract research staff on a permanent basis as a business strategy.

  87. It could be done by individual universities. They would have to budget within their money.
  (Dr Bradburne) But too many times I have heard from our senior management "that is not a problem. It did not affect us. We managed". Because the people who are at the top now got through with this system, they do not realise that we are now 20/30 years on, mortgages have changed, career structures have changed, family structures have changed. If you want to be a successful scientist it is a lot harder to find that niche to become permanent.

Dr Turner

  88. You are blaming senior academics?
  (Dr Bradburne) I am not blaming senior academics, I am saying that it is a problem that senior academics may not be willing to accept there is such a big problem because it worked for them.

  89. Do you think there is anything they can do to help resolve it?
  (Dr Link) I think there is a way of resolving it. Firstly, I think at the moment there is a general misunderstanding of the research as such. Scientific research is not a short-term activity. Research is built up with the expertise and experience, and, therefore, it is a long-term activity. If one has a two or three or one year contract it is absolutely impossible for young people to develop their skills, to develop their intellectual capacity and become independent. And, of course, for senior people who are employed on short-term contracts the system is killing their long-term research. One cannot carry out long-term research having one, two or three year contracts. Also, this kind of system provides an opportunity to abuse the system because those who are lucky enough to have a permanent contract with the university and are in the position to attract external funding do employ people, particularly young people to perform particular tasks. This type of employment does not develop the young people skills because, if they are working from A to B for one, two or three years, they are not developing skills, particularly intellectual skills, to become independent scientists. After two or three years those young people are moved to another A project where again they are given tasks from A to B so it is a cheap labour and not a probationary period and not the time when they are developing and learning skills and learning how to become more independent, how to build their own interests in science, their own research and become senior scientists[1].

  90. The very name short-term contract researcher is almost a contradiction in terms, is it not?
  (Dr Link) Yes.
  (Dr Bradburne) Yes.
  (Dr Hill) In terms of blame, I have had time to think about it now, I would blame the research councils who prevent people from applying for funding which goes towards their own salaries and I would blame, also, the university managers who do not have the conviction behind the statements that they give to Roberts and to a lot of us in this room here. "Do not worry, it is okay, we will find you permanent money, we just will not give you a permanent contract". When I went for a mortgage in 1995 my then head of department wrote a letter to the mortgage company which said "He will be employed indefinitely within this department".

  Chairman: We have to move on but can I say that has been extremely helpful. If you think of anything you would like to have posed yourself as a question and can give us the answer if you have the time it would be very useful if you write in to us to amplify things you have said. No doubt we will put out a report which hopefully will have some effect in this area. Thank you all very much for coming.

1   Note by witness: In my opinion the only way forward is to offer as many short-term contracts as a particular university/institute is subsequently able to offer permanent posts. And a short-term contract should, indeed, be treated as a probationary period and not an opportunity to have cheap labour. Back

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