Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 111-119)



Mr McWalter

  111. The Bett Report was published in June 1999 and it made various recommendations which might have been able to address some of the issues that we have been talking about this afternoon. Why do you think it is that it is only the Robert Gordon University which has really put all of its contract researchers on these open-ended contracts and why do you think so little progress has been made on the Bett Report by universities?

  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) The reason I think why there has been so little progress overall on the Bett Report is lack of resources and the ability to be able to move to the restructured scales, the restructured system, that we are all agreed we need. We have been negotiating with the unions in that area, as indeed we have in relation to contract research staff. We all recognise that there have been considerable disadvantages in the role of contract research staff. It is why we, with other stakeholders, established the Research Careers Initiative and have been monitoring progress on that initiative every year. The point about Robert Gordon's is that it is in a sense one of size. If one is talking about the prospect of and the risk associated with changing the contracts of a relatively small number of staff as opposed to the financial risk associated with changing the contract to what might be possibly a thousand staff in a research intensive university, we think different considerations have to come to mind. In the end the issue of the change in contract and the associated conditions that go with that, particularly redundancy, is one of cost.

  112. Have you costed exactly how much it would take to implement this part of the recommendations in the Bett Report and have you made that submission to the Chancellor?
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) I do not think we have separated that out. What we have said in our submission under the SR2002 umbrella is the need for proper funding for research. That includes the element that has already been referred to by other witnesses, the full funding of the recent research assessment exercise, which has placed in jeopardy a very large number of departments in universities who have done well in research. These are not departments that are doing badly in research; these are departments that have done well, so what is needed is full funding for the research assessment exercise and full funding for the infrastructure of research. You will appreciate, I think, that one of the big changes in university funding has been the huge increase in the amount of money coming from non-funding council sources. It has doubled in less than ten years and within that the amount of money from the charities has trebled, so that the amount of money with strings attached which is then associated with judgements that have to be made about contract research staff has increased dramatically as a countervailing balance to the reduction in public funding.

  113. When you talked about universities that have got a very large number of researchers, a thousand or whatever, clearly it would be extraordinary if those researchers were able to submit a significant number of bids in order to get a significant continuation of their funding base, so in a sense, although there can be ebbs and flows in the funding, depending on whether they are successful in applying for particular contracts or not, clearly there is pretty much an assurance that the quantum of funding that is going to be made available to them is as permanent as many of the other sources of funding that they receive. Why in that case do contract researchers feel abused by universities who look at each particular project and say, "That is five years; that is what you are getting. That is three years; that is what you are getting", rather than looking at the totality of the research work and treating that group of staff in a much more appropriate way?
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) I think they certainly are able to do that with the committed funding that comes through the funding councils. They are not able to do that with the project-associated funding because they have to deliver to the funders. The researchers themselves are answerable to the funders, so you have no flexibility in the way in which you use that money. The only flexibility the universities have is the resources that they are able to provide from within departments from core funding. Many universities now are using that to provide bridging loans, for example, where a researcher or a team of researchers has not found it possible in time to establish a new research grant and they are using some of that money to provide a means of keeping those researchers in place. The amount of flexibility, as you will appreciate, in universities where their overall funds are decreasing is very limited indeed.

  114. So if we give you the money you will stop it?
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) No, I do not think we can entirely stop the problem associated with uncertain funding and the risks for an institution of seeking to use monies not for that purpose in order to try to shore up research teams or to provide resources for research teams where there is no prospect of future funding for them. Universities would have to look at to whom they are responsible for that money and whether or not it could be used in that way. But in principle universities, through the Research Careers Initiative, have been looking for all sorts of different ways in order both to try to improve the situation, including the training available for the contract researchers and indeed, a point again made by one of your other witnesses, the training made available to and required of managers of research staff.

  115. Surely in the very unusual case of someone who is a research scientist, they have got a very strong track record, they have submitted on various projects and have been successful, the chances of them having "no prospect of continuing funding" must be relatively low, taken in the round, and in addition, if that were the case, then there would be a ground for making that person redundant, but the current system just has the funding constraint thrown at the people immediately as a desperately bad condition of their work rather than saying, "You are here; you are part of the university; you are a researcher. Assuming things go as normally as they do, we would hope to be able to keep you in post." That should the way round it is and you are telling me that even if we give you the money you are not going to treat these people properly.
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) Perhaps Glynis can respond to this as well but I think in a way you are describing the cleft stick that departments and research managers find themselves in because on the one hand, if they indicate that they would like to keep individual members of staff on, they are then accused of dangling a carrot in front of a contract researcher and almost implying that there is likely to be continuation, and if that continuation is then not fulfilled because a research grant is not found there are problems there of bad faith. The whole purpose in trying to reach an understanding with the funders and within universities through the research councils' initiative has been to try to get over some of these major drawbacks that you have heard about today in short-term contracts. They involve support for training, in trying to find additional posts that might be available for those whose contracts are coming to an end, a whole range of initiatives within the RCI which the universities themselves as institutions have been party to.
  (Professor Breakwell) I only wanted to add one thing, which is in relation to this issue of ensuring that we move to a situation where research contracts and grants are fully funded. We have shown through the work that we have done in the Transparency Review recently that there is massive under-funding of research contracts going through universities. I think we need to have a different culture in the way in which we deal with the pricing of our research activity. If we shift from a low cost culture to one which is appropriately costed I think some of the things that we need to do, and it is recognised that we need to do these things, can then be done more effectively. At the moment what we are trying to do is squash everything too tightly into too small a time frame for many researchers and at too low a cost.

Dr Iddon

  116. Why are women 32 per cent more likely to be employed on these contracts than men?
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) It is a very good question and we do not have any data that enables me to answer you properly except that, through projects like the Athena Project, for example, there has been a move to involve more women and to encourage more women to come into posts in science, engineering and technology, so there has been active encouragement for more women to come into this area. What we do not know, and I think it is something that we indicated in our evidence to you, is what happens to those people who move from contract research positions into permanent positions. I do not think I can say any more than that because I think the figures speak for themselves. There has been a very considerable increase overall in the numbers of contract research staff which has to do I think with the point I made earlier about the huge increase in the amount of project-based money, but within that there has been a very considerable emphasis on encouraging women to come into the area.
  (Professor Breakwell) I do not think anyone knows the answer to your question but one can put a series of facts together to come to some conclusions. We have had a massive expansion of the number of people who are on research contracts in this category. In my own university in the last 15 years there has been a tripling of the number of people in that category. We are finding that of course more women are going through science and engineering courses now than previously. We are also finding that our research jobs in universities are less attractive to people who can find employment elsewhere. If it is the case that we have a greater supply of women in science and engineering than we previously did and there are more jobs available at the lower grades within the career structure, then I would expect that you would find an imbalance initially. What we should be looking for though I think are the sorts of figures that Diana has mentioned where we look to see what is the trajectory of women who are coming into these jobs now and are they differentially prevented from moving into other types of jobs within universities. I do not think we have the evidence.

  117. The Committee have been told that when women move from one contract to another they lose maternity entitlement. Is that the case and, if so, what are you at UK Universities going to do about that?
  (Professor Breakwell) All I can say is that it is not the case within my own university. Typically, staff on continuous contracts will be treated on the same basis as permanent staff.
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) We do not have any data to hand on this. Clearly, from what has been said to you, the situation varies. It will be about length of service presumably.

  118. I have presented two questions to you there on women on these contracts. The answers that you have given are a bit nebulous, if I may say so. Can I suggest to you that we need some accurate data on this? Would Universities UK promote finding out what is happening with respect to the two questions I have asked?
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) Yes indeed. We are extremely conscious of the areas where we do have limited data, particularly about the way in which people progress. We have certainly done a lot of work to find out from universities through the RCI co-ordinators, of which there are now about a hundred in the sector, where the problems lie and what we can do to address those problems. I concur entirely that we need better data and certainly I would like to see a proper project assessing that data and finding out where things, if they are going wrong, are going wrong.


  119. Up until now I have always thought you were the employers of people in universities. You have identified all the problems but you do not seem to be taking responsibility for sorting the damn things out. All your answers have been that it is somebody else's fault, blame the Government, but you can always find ways in industry to solve problems when you recognise them. You have not come up with anything yet to say how you are tackling these issues.
  (Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe) But I do not accept that at all because I think that, having described the problem way back in 1995/96, we did set up with other partners the Research Careers Initiative. That has meant that we now have RCI co-ordinators in the vast majority of institutions. We set out a series of aims for the RCI which have been picked up subsequently by various other initiatives, I am very pleased to say, so a lot more work is being done in this area. We have been monitoring the outputs of the RCI aims every year and we publish a report every year. We have produced a very substantial amount of good practice. We have seen appraisal systems introduced for contract research staff. We have seen training, not in every institution, I know that, but if you look at the statistics, because the research councils are now also monitoring some of the outputs of the RCI, you can see the statistics improve year on year. I am not at all complacent about that. I can see, and you have heard from so many people who are either involved currently in short term contract research or who have been, that there remain a large number of problems. The universities themselves are committed to do what we can through the conditions over which we have control to try to improve that situation.

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