Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 140-159)



  140. Like the Royal Society Research Fellows of which we have heard much in the last few months. If everybody was a Royal Society Research Fellow I am sure we would be happy.
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) If I can come back to the three trajectories approach, as you know, in the report I have suggested there should be about a thousand new equivalents to the Royal Society fellowship where a couple of years into one a university needs to say, "Yes, we will take that person on on a permanent basis". One of the young researchers who met you earlier was, I think, wrong about the research associate scheme. In my report I am recommending that they be put on permanent contracts, not temporary contracts. With regard to the industrial trajectory, what is important for these people is to get the right training. What is the point of them demonstrating in research labs or teaching labs in universities if they are not going to stay on in the university? Far better to get work experience and some real training, and so one of the key recommendations in my report is that, whichever category you want to find yourself in, there should be adequate training there either for an academic career or for a career outside academe. It is so important that people develop those additional skills that are required because there is no doubt, when I went out to industry and business, that they were complaining quite a lot about the quality of our PhDs and so on, not so much because of the subject skills they had but because of those generic skills which they did not possess.

Mr Heath

  141. One of the witnesses earlier described your research associates as technicians, albeit technicians with doctorates. Is that a description you recognise?
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) Absolutely not. You will not find that in my report. It says that there is a group of contract researchers who want to continue with a research career and do not want to pursue an academic career. This track would principally apply to those who develop specialist knowledge of specific research equipment or methodologies or provide an ongoing support enabling function with a research group. I go on to say that the emphasis here would be on the provision of permanent contracts and so on. These people are very often crucial people in a research group, these highly skilled people. I think they need to be flexible in order that they can change their area of research perhaps over their career. These are permanent contracts. There are many people on these positions now. I am just suggesting that there should be more.

Dr Iddon

  142. In my university we used to call those people research technicians. I am a chemist and they used to run NMR instruments, mass spectrometers, they were very valued people but they were still called technicians, so I beg to differ there.
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) In my university they differ. In Sheffield, where I did have some responsibility, these people moved up on a parallel track and they could eventually become readers, become professors and have exactly the same opportunities to reach a chair status.

  143. On this track approach that you have mentioned just now, if we were listening to you carefully you seem to be suggesting that the very best contract researchers should be kept on by universities, and often are, of course.
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) No, no, I have not said that.

  144. And others leak out into industry and it is suggested industry do not get the cream when they need the cream.
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) Your first supposition was wrong. I did not mean that at all. Some people have a tremendous research gift but perhaps their communication and other skills are not well suited for academe. Others do have all those features. What I have tried to pull out in my report is that there are some excellent careers outside academe and I think perhaps some of the careers advice that people have could be improved a great deal.


  145. In our debate on the RAE last week I was being told by colleagues in the House, and a large number of MPs came to that debate, that many academics are useless at teaching too but they are kept on and everybody has had dreadful lectures. I have given some dreadful lectures in my time too; we all do, but I would not say I would sack myself. Why should you have one criterion for lecturers because they are something else and another for these very good people doing research and probably some of them are good teachers too? They probably teach better than some of the academics but they do not get the chance to do it.
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) What you say is very true about some of the lecturers in the British university system, but I think with the younger ones who come through, and again I am speaking from experience in Sheffield in particular, we insisted that people, as well as developing their research, also took an MEd while they were doing their probationary period, so they did end up being skilled teachers, one hoped, as well as being very good researchers. What we are short of in this country is sufficient of these people, these gifted researchers, the gifted academics. We want to encourage more people to go into those professions.

Dr Iddon

  146. Can I ask you if you think the research councils have done enough themselves to tackle the problems that we have been discussing this afternoon? After all, they have been around a long time.
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) The research councils have taken the view that universities are managing the staff and not them. The Wellcome Foundation on the other hand are an excellent exemplar. You will not find many people funded by Wellcome who are complaining too much. They really have taken more seriously their obligations in terms of funding students and staff. I would like to think that we, via the RCI recommendations, can build on the type of work that the Wellcome people have done and make sure that we do not have the sorts of stories that you have heard about this afternoon. It really is disgraceful that people are on these ultra short contracts. There has to be a point where, after a couple of years, in which there have been regular appraisals, people recognise their strengths and weaknesses and decisions have to be made about what is best for an individual. Are they best suited for academic work? As I say, we need more honesty in the system and I am not sure that principal investigators have always been that honest with their staff.

  147. You have heard me say earlier that I believe, and I think it is pretty apparent, that the research assessment exercise is concentrating more and more on research in fewer and fewer universities and what I call the middle of the league universities are the ones that are suffering the most, the ones with four and especially of course the bottom, the 3A and 3B grades. I put it to you that the research assessment exercise has seriously disadvantaged contract research staff because, as the research has been concentrated in those fewer and fewer universities, lots of departments have closed—this is the collateral damage we are talking about in our report on the research assessment exercise—and thereby short term contracts have been the first to go in a lot of universities in the middle of the league who have been put under pressure. Would you agree with that?
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) As you may know, I have been asked to conduct a review of the research assessment exercise.

  Dr Iddon: That was why I asked the question.


  148. It was interesting—that was the day before our debate. Great influence, you see.
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) What I would agree with is that the biggest fault with the present RAE, the one that has just gone, is that it has not rewarded the quality of supervision of people. The human dimension has effectively been ignored. You know you get your 0.15 or your 0.1 added to the volume count irrespective of how well you manage people. I think that is wrong and I am absolutely positive that in the next RAE or before then in fact the funding councils will have a code of practice in place not just with contract researchers but for the way young PhD students are looked after, how young lecturers are looked after; otherwise there will be a financial penalty. Money talks and I really do feel that that more than anything will transform the situation.

Mr Heath

  149. I was struck by what you said about ultra-short contracts. I am struggling to conceive of any circumstances where it makes sense for somebody to be put on a contract of one month or two months or anything less than six months, I have to say. Nobody sensibly can employ somebody at this level of expertise for that period of time. I am really struggling to find how it is worthwhile a department or the individual entering into contracts of that kind.
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) There is one very good reason and that is that very often PhD students do not complete their PhD in the three years or four years that they have. Very often it suits a person to be able to stay on for another few months to complete the writing up of their thesis, but otherwise I agree with you. It just does not make sense.

  150. Those are not the circumstances we heard described earlier.
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) But I am sure if you analysed a large majority of people, certainly in my experience, they all have much longer contracts than that.


  151. The average is about three years, do you think?
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) I am not sure about three years but certainly two, certainly in the research groups I have worked in in about six different universities. Certainly I have not recruited anybody on a month contract ever. The large majority are on much longer contracts.

Dr Turner

  152. We have also heard today that although someone may be employed on a two-year contract they will not get two years' real research work out of that because they will be distracted by trying to find either the next contract or having to write research proposals for their own funding, so with a bit of luck they might get a year's real work out of the one or two-year contract and then they might move on to a different field and start all over again. It seems to be rather inefficient. Since the short-term contract worker is doing so much of British science at the moment, are we not building in an inefficiency factor if you like in British science which, if it got any worse, would threaten its overall quality?
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) This country is unique in the large number of contract researchers it has. If you go to, say, Scandinavia, there are virtually no contract researchers at all. The reason for that is that they have not seen the demise of the corporate research lab as we have in this country. Just as the ICIs and GECs of this world have reduced their corporate research labs we have seen the numbers of contract researchers increase in universities. In other countries their investment in R&D from industry is at least double our investment in this country. I personally would like to see rather more R&D spend in industry in this country. Also, because of the funding formula with the RAE, that has encouraged universities to invest in numbers of people at the expense of infrastructure. I am absolutely sure that when the comprehensive spending review statement comes through shortly we will find that universities will perhaps be told, "Look; we will help you recover the present situation over the next five or six years, but you really must get your house in order. You must not neglect infrastructure in future", and this may well mean a reduction in the overall number of contract researchers. I would like to think as the numbers perhaps shrink in university, the numbers doing research in industry will build up and so the actual numbers will stay much the same.

  153. Can you suggest any instrument which the Government could use to encourage that increase in industrial research?
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) Absolutely. Some of the recommendations in my report are aimed at the regional development of England in particular. I think there are schemes where we could have industry, Government and universities working together in regions where we have teams of contract researchers—research fellows, I must start calling them—who really are working to satisfy the economic strategy of the regions. There are regional approaches to all this although research obviously is an international activity if you are doing it right.

Dr Iddon

  154. The Chancellor fortunately has made some positive comments about your report. Do you think we are going to get enough money to fund your recommendations and even have you attempted to cost the recommendations in your report?
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) I was not asked to cost the recommendations. Clearly we are talking about three or four billion probably, but remember I have got some deadlines that are as far out as 2010. Just as in the cost-cutting review of research, it is going to take probably another six or seven years for us to really get our act together in this country to bring us to where we were in funding terms and our support of science and engineering 30 years ago, so although three or four billion pounds sounds a lot of money, stretched out over seven years or so I think it is affordable. One of the key priorities of course is trying to fund that gap in the RAE and I am reasonably confident that the Treasury will have the common sense to see that that needs to be done so that this funding blip will just be for a year and from 2003/2004 onwards we will be able to support the RAE grades in full.

  155. I hope so.
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) So do I.


  156. The exam season in universities has just passed. Contrast the attitudes of the AUT and NATFHE and the work they have done on this issue as against Universities UK. Do you think there has been a different activity level there?
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) To be fair to Universities UK, they were one of the signatories of the Concordat in 1997 and so we have been working together with them and the funding councils and the research councils, so they have seen their contribution as coming via RCI. That said, I think they, like us, are frustrated that we cannot do more. I really do believe, you know, that the secret is the EC directive making sure that universities do comply by that and having the funding councils having this stick that says, "If you do not manage staff properly there will be a penalty". I would like to see UUK and others this autumn signing up to a new Concordat. By then we will have the results of the Sheffield project. I have seen the results. They really are good in terms of a code of practice for how contract researchers should be managed in terms of appraisals and skills experience and this kind of thing. That will all be available on the web for everybody to see. We are going to have a very different picture this autumn and I think Concordat mark two is the way forward and I am very hopeful that we will get there.

  157. Do you think that we will be able to stand in front of the first group we had today and say, "Your jobs are safe"?
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) I am trying to remember which was the first group you had.

  158. The ones who had just started and were very disillusioned.
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) I have to say that, although those people were speaking the truth and giving their real experiences, I could have found for you nine people who really were quite content with their experience as contract researchers.

  159. Presumably you have talked to them in your report.
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) I did, indeed.

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