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


Memorandum submitted by the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Education and Skills


  1.  Much research in Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) is funded on a fixed-term basis by industry, research charities, the European Union, Government Departments and the Research Councils. In turn, this has led to circumstances in which HEIs employ staff, generally known as "contract research staff" (CRS), through fixed-term or similar contracts to carry out the research. HEIs benefit from the use of CRS who bring fresh ideas, expertise and knowledge, and enable HEIs to respond flexibly to the opportunities and the needs expressed by funding bodies. CRS also benefit from the experience and can use the period of employment to test out their suitability for further research inside or outside academia and to acquire a wider range of competencies and experience.

  2.  It is important to recognize that the pattern of contract research and career paths vary significantly by subject area. Longer-term contract researchers are concentrated in the biological sciences, where the science involved causes projects to be longer-term, as well as the projects attracting more diverse funding. In other areas of the natural and physical sciences, the movement of contract researchers into employment outside academia is more marked. The pattern in the social sciences differs again. It is also important to recognize that many contract researchers still greatly value their jobs and the opportunity to work, albeit through fixed-term employment, on their chosen topic. The allure of research remains strong.

  3.  The Government accepts that there are three broad CRS career aspirations as identified in the final report of the recent review of the supply of scientists and engineers by Sir Gareth Roberts:

    career starters—have the potential to become research leaders or to obtain a longer-term HEI post which combines teaching and research. Typically, stay CRS for only a short period;

    career researchers—are employed by a HEI over the medium to long-term to work on a succession of research projects, and wish to remain in research; and

    job entrants—enter contract research as a job, but not explicitly to make a career in research. They have an important role to play deploying their expertise and skills in a variety of employment, in industry, commerce, and the wider public sector.


  4.  The Government believes that the quality of the experience associated with contract research is more important than the number of CRS. There will continue to be a role for CRS as there is for fixed-term contract staff in many sectors. Effective support and proper status, supervision, training and career guidance are important—where these are lacking, that does cause problems for CRS careers. CRS posts can provide beneficial experience and be of value in themselves as well as being the stepping-stones, for some, to more senior jobs in academia. However researchers leaving research before a contract ends to find another posting or researchers with potential in academia or other fields of employment who become too narrowly specialized or lose self confidence can represent a missed opportunity and squandered investment.


  5.  Successive Governments have recognised the need for more effective career management of contract research staff, and that this would require action from the universities and colleges and the funding bodies. Proposals were set out in the 1993 White Paper "Realising Our Potential", and resulted, among other things, in a gradual increase in the numbers of Royal Society University Research Fellows and the Research Councils amending their fellowship schemes in relation to salaries, maternity benefit, and processing of grant applications.

  6.  The Concordat for the career management of CRS was agreed between the university sector and research funding bodies in 1996. The Concordat provides a framework within which the universities, colleges, Research Councils and other funding bodies have been working to achieve those objectives. The Research Careers Initiative was set up to monitor progress against the Concordat framework, and to encouraged best practice and its dissemination in the career management of CRS.

  7.  The Government built on and encouraged this through the 2000 White Paper "Excellence and Opportunity". The Government believes that the advancement of knowledge, and the people who are doing it and who can move it along, is extremely important to the UK economy and the quality of life. We cannot any longer afford to assume—if we ever could—that talented people will rush into research for altruistic reasons, or if they do, that they will want to stay. We cannot leave the process and their personal development to chance.

  8.  The RCI report in September 2001 records a number of examples of progress with the management and development of CRS careers. Some of the key advances has been the development of good practice models in the provision of staff appraisal, in-service training, personal transferable skills, and career guidance.

  9.  Higher education institutions are responsible for the pay, terms and conditions of all their staff. The Government is working to encourage improved pay and human resources practices in higher education institutions. £330 million was provided, over three years, in the 2000 Spending Review, explicitly for pay and human resources development. In return for their share of these funds, higher education institutions were required to return human resources strategies setting out how these resources will be used to help achieve the institution's priorities.

  10.  Other employers, including Research Councils and business, have a similar responsibility to improve the attractiveness of careers in research and development and have continued their involvement with the RCI.

  11.  To some extent institutions' willingness to use fixed-term contracts is related to the current patterns of research funding including short-term research contracts and prices that often do not include much of a contribution to indirect and long-term costs. The Transparency Review, which has prompted institutions to cost their activities more thoroughly, may as one beneficial effect lead to more effective pricing by institutions, the recovery of more long-term costs and more stability in institutions' finances for research. This and other related reforms might enable institutions to employ more junior researchers on permanent contracts.

  12.  The Government asked Sir Gareth Roberts to review of the supply of scientists and engineers in the UK, and his report was published in April 2002. The Government will be considering the recommendations of his report in the context of the current Spending Review which is to be announced later this year.


  13.  The UK will transpose the EC Fixed Term Work Directive in October 2002, the directive aims to prevent fixed term employees being less favourably treated than comparable employees and prevent the abuse of successive fixed term contracts. This will give CRS staff the right to equal treatment compared to permanent staff doing the same or broadly similar work. The Directive is not designed to eliminate the use fixed term appointments. The regulations place no limit on the first fixed term appointment and the statutory limit can be varied by workplace or collective agreements. Nonetheless, the Directive is likely to improve the quality of the CRS experience, reinforcing Government policy to promote improved human resource management in higher education.

25 June 2002

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