Memorandum submitted by the Association
of Researchers in Medicine and Science (ARMS)
1.1 The Association of Researchers in Medicine
and Science (ARMS) was founded in 1978, in recognition of the
rapidly deteriorating, prospects for non-medically qualified researchers
in medical research. Its first objective is the establishment
of an appropriate career structure to replace the present system
of short-term contracts and enable those with the right qualities
as well as qualifications to pursue an active full-time career
in research, in all branches of science and medicine.
1.2 The "Case for Careers in Medical
Research" was published by ARMS in May 1980 and detailed
"Career Proposals" were published in May 1981. These
suggested how appropriate careers could be established within
the existing budget. Since then we have hosted meetings, conducted
a series of surveys to collect facts relating to research employment,
provided evidence to interested parties and revised our careers
proposals, "Careers in Research", a discussion paper
setting out the problem and a way forward (http://www.hop.man.ac.uk/arms/proposal.htmAppendix
1). This document sets out the background to the problem and sets
out specific proposals as the framework for a solution.
1.3 We welcome the opportunity to provide
evidence and have aimed to address each of the specific points
raised by the Select Committee. In doing so we are forced to note
that, although there has been a slow recognition of the problem,
it has been clearly identified, on many occasions, in recent years.
There has, however, been a failure to take effective action. Measures
taken have been well meaning, in respect of the introduction of
various fellowship schemes and the Concordat, but ineffectual
or, in the case of the Fixed Term Working Regulations, missed.
In general, we see this as being a failure to lay proper responsibility
on those organisations, primarily the universities, which have
responsibility for employing contract research staff (CRS).
2. Does the preponderance of short-term research
contracts really matter?
2.1 The answer is yes. Reliance on short-term
contracts has important implications for conduct of research.
There has been a misconception in some quarters that it encourages
more people to become acquainted with research and provides flexibility.
In the days when the numbers were smaller and progress to an academic
or other career was more straightforward, there may have been
some merit in this consideration, but this perceived advantage
has long been outweighed by the disadvantages. The experience
of other professional bodies, such a doctors and teachers actually
suggests that an employment market where more established research
posts were available in open competition is more likely to encourage
rather greater mobility of a skilled population of researchers.
2.2 One of the crucial disadvantages in
not taking action to address the abuse of fixed-term contracts
has been the effect on recruitment. Much evidence is anecdotal,
but widespread. It has become increasingly difficult to recruit
British or EU Nationals, the bulk of responses to advertisements
for scientific research positions often coming from China and
India. These individuals may have the required intellectual skills
but generally have little or no experimental expertise. Such difficulties
are borne out by the result of a recent ARMS survey, where two
thirds of respondents, advertising for post-doctoral research
staff, commented on the difficulties and not one respondent was
unreservedly positive (Appendix 2).
2.3 The failure to attract school leavers
into science must in part be attributed to the perception that
the prospects of career progression in science are poor, as much
as to the salaries available, relative to alternative careers.
Difficulties in filling studentships are increasing. Last year,
one London Medical School advertised 12 PhD studentships, had
filled only eight by the beginning of term and the total number
of applicants was very low, even with a substantial increase in
stipend. Another high profile biochemistry department in a London
college is currently having difficulty filling its PhD studentships
and has concerns about quality of applicants.
2.4 In addition there is the issue of loss
of skilled staff. CRS now leave their temporary posts as soon
as a permanent post is offered to them elsewhere, often completely
outside research or in a post-1992 University where the teaching
and admin loads are high and there are fewer opportunities for
research. Either way, promising scientists are lost to research.
In some cases ex-CRS may be able to utilise their skills in their
new posts, there being in this case less of a loss in terms of
training but potentially a significant disruption to a research
programme, particularly when a post is abandoned part way through
a grant. This naturally adds to recruitment costs and training
2.5 Hidden within the low application rate
for research positions is the issue of quality. Although more
subjective, it is inescapable that where few applicants are available
there must be a general fall in quality of those applying. This
was a point made by many respondents to our survey (Appendix 2).
2.6 A further factor to be added is that
of commitment; something that has perhaps been regarded as an
integral element of research. However, when placed in a position
where it becomes increasingly likely that one will be forced to
find alternative employment, and where the system does not make
a realistic commitment to either training or career, it would
be surprising if commitment by the researcher were 100 per cent.
2.7 A proportion of CRS with a good publication
record will stand a chance of obtaining fellowships supported
by bodies such as the MRC, the Royal Society or the Wellcome Trust.
But research teams depend on people with a variety of abilities.
Those who are not leaders but have a particular expertise in say
cell culture or transgenic animals are indispensable but it is
equally difficult to retain such people in the absence of a career
structure. The situation is exacerbated in scientific departments,
owing to the failure of many institutions to provide adequate
technical support staff In fact in general terms the run down
in the number of technicians has been dramatic with a disastrous
effect on the infrastructure of universities. In contrast this
is the strength of research institutes.
2.8 The importance of individuals undertaking
research at a level between principal investigators and technicians
is well recognised and has been highlighted by the Royal Society
in both in its report, "The Future of the Science Base"
(1992), and in its evidence to the Lords Select Committee on Science
and Technology (Academic Careers for Graduate Scientists, 1995).
However, in contrast to expanding its fellowship schemes for high
fliers it has done little to support careers at other levels.
2.9 A decline in numbers, quality and commitment
of those employed in research is an almost inevitable consequence
of the current state of research employment for most CRS. These
factors cannot be seen as having anything but a negative impact
on research, and this matters considerably.
3. What are the implications for researchers
and their careers?
3.1 Historically it has perhaps been fortunate
that those entering research have not primarily been driven by
the desire to earn a high salary, although the current drive to
encourage entrepreneurial individuals would suggest that this
should now perhaps be considered a potentially important driving
force. However, those driven by an interest in science and a questioning
mind will at least ask themselves whether there is a reasonable
prospect of them being able to continue in science and research.
For many, the conclusion will be no and they will choose alternative
careers, with better prospects. Fortunately the drive is still
strong in some individuals, so the supply has not completely dried
up, but those who stay in research are naturally questioning where
they have the most potential to develop and the answer is, "not
in the UK". We are therefore losing much of our talent overseas,
particularly to the U.S., where, although there is also no promise
of a career, the opportunities and level of support are significantly
greater. To fill the gap, highly motivated, but generally less
well qualified candidates from overseas are applying for the positions
3.2 The issue of commitment is as important
to a researcher's own development as to the country's research
effort as a whole. Good CRS from the UK, but particularly from
overseas, will work hard to publish papers, but may understandably
have very little loyalty to the university and little interest
in its affairs. They may be likened them to a hotel guest who
would not be expected to take an interest in the management. They
see little hope of getting a permanent post and usually aim to
go to the U.S. In fact it could be said that we are a fine training
ground for both native and overseas research trainees, who subsequently
leave the UK.
3.3 Significant efforts have been made to
encourage small numbers of very senior researchers to return home.
Bribery has worked in some cases but can inevitably make only
a small and selective impact, relative to the large number of
very good researchers that have been lost. Not only must returnees
face a crumbling infrastructure but they have to start from scratch
within a system that provides no incentive and career prospects
for those that must work in their laboratories. They know the
situation that drove them away will also drive others away.
4. Is there evidence that the present situation
causes good researchers to leave?
4.1 This was addressed above, in terms of
impact on research (paragraph 2.4) and researchers (paragraphs
3.1-3.3). Much evidence on this point is difficult to come by
and is therefore anecdotal. Funding bodies will often have data
in respect of how often it has become necessary to re-advertise
a position during tenure of a project, but whether this is loss
of "good" researchers cannot be evaluated. However,
some evidence comes from a recent cohort study of those that had
received Wellcome Trust Prize PhD studentships (highly competitive
and paying significantly more than most PhD studentships). This
study found that, although over 80 per cent entered academic research,
less than half remained four to five years later (Wellcome
News, Issue 22,2000). Two of the three reasons cited for leaving
research were: "lack of job security and the need to apply
continually for research funding", and the "lack of
a defined career path".
5. What would be the right balance between
contract and permanent research staff in universities and research
5.1 In addressing this point in our response
to the Department of Trade and Industry consultation on Fixed-Term
Contracts (2001Appendix 3) we proposed a limit to the percentage
of fixed term staff in a given employment category. We did not
suggest a figure but suggested the target percentage should be
challenging and that it might be necessary to provide a target
date by which this should be met. This would allow a margin of
flexibility to the employer, while focusing the mind of the employer
on the need for good management and sound planning. We further
suggested a financial premium on employment of fixed-term staff
and here we note that this principle already applies to UK researchers
working in international organisations sponsored by the UK government
(such as the European EMBO and ESO). This premium should provide
a disincentive to employment of fixed-term staff, whilst again
allowing a reasonable degree of flexibility, and would also provide
some compensation to employees for the financial uncertainty of
6. Has the Concordat and Research Careers
Initiative made any difference?
6.1 It would be wrong to say that the Concordat
has made no difference to the lot of CRS. However, it is difficult
to escape the conclusion that this has been piecemeal and at the
margins. The Concordat has eliminated some gross unfairness, such
as failure to allow for maternity leave and the insertion of waiver
clauses to avoid redundancy payments, but many practical improvements
and the general ethos underlying the document seem to have been
6.2 In announcing the Concordat in 1996,
the Minister for Science and Technology, Ian Taylor, stated "This
is not about giving all contract staff permanent jobs". Indeed,
it would have been more correct to say that "It was not about
giving any contract staff permanent jobs". As stated to those
who have attended the research management training courses, organised
in response to the Concordat, the concordat is about "managing"
the issue than resolving it. This has engendered an understandable
degree of cynicism amongst CRS and, as alluded to above (paragraph
3.2), it is not surprising that the scheme has failed to engage
CRS on any large scale. As stated in the 3rd Research Careers
Initiative (RCI) Report on implementation of the Concordat (paragraph
10), it is unreasonable to expect CRS to engage in this process
when `the surrounding culture appears to attach little or no value
to personal development'.
6.3 There is little doubt that many of the
parties to the Concordat have striven hard to see it implemented.
However, the absence of any clear imperative on the institutions
and the prevailing culture, combined with the fact that the Concordat
was never intended to address the inefficiencies and inequities
of over reliance on fixed-term contracts, has meant that it could
never be much more than window dressing. The extent of the failure
of the Concordat in this regard may be judged by the fact that,
after five years, the 3rd RCI Report was able to state that the
data suggested "little change in the extent to which good
practice is benefiting research staff" (paragraph 19 of the
3rd RCI Report).
7. How should policy move forward?
7.1 An important factor in moving policy
forward must be that there should actually be a policy, and it
should be clear in its aim of preventing over reliance on the
use of fixed-term-contracts in research. ARMS identified the emergence
of the problem in 1978. The Royal Society has since acknowledged
the problem, as cited above (paragraph 2,8). The 2000 White Paper,
"Excellence and Opportunity"', from the Department of
Trade and Industry, notes the importance of ensuring "a proper
funding framework and that academic careers are rewarding"
(Chapter 2, paragraph 3 of the White Paper), and stated "Young
people need to be able to see that jobs in university research
lead somewherewhether within academia or to careers outside"
(Chapter 2, paragraph 34 of the White Paper). The Affiliated Societies
of the Institute of Biology set out in its Charter for Science
and Engineering (Article 1: http://www.rsc.org/lap/parliament/charter-text.htm_Article1)
that the `Government must address important issues such as the
career paths of scientists and engineers' (Science Policy Priorities
2001). The Academy of Medical Sciences report on `Non-Clinical
Scientists on Short-Term Contracts (February, 2002), similarly
called for action, as did the Wellcome Trust paper "Radical
Thinking, Creative Solutions": Career Issues in UK Academic
Research (July 2001). However, none have attempted putting forward
proposals to decrease the reliance on fixed-term contracts, except
for ARMS. Our own proposals (Appendix 1: http://www.hop.man.ac.uk/arms/proposal.htm)
still appear to be the only realistic attempt at this and we have
yet to be apprised of any reason why these might not form the
basis of a way forward.
7.2 The key to addressing this issue is
to make the employers of contract research staff face up to their
personnel responsibilities and the detrimental effects that fixed-term
contracts are having on research. This will entail recognition
that, although individual research contracts are variable and
unpredictable, overall external research income is more stable
and, in most cases, increasing. The call for greater funding of
science is well founded but it is a fact that most of the money
that would fund open-ended contracts for researchers is already
in the system. Funding bodies already pay the costs of staff that
undertake the research work: whether it is enough is a different
issue but this should not be a factor in removing the over-reliance
on fixed-term contracts. Currently, considerable sums are wasted
on advertisement, re-advertisment and training. The reduction
in use of fixed-term contracts simply requires employers to engage
the appropriate staff, then train and deploy them as necessary
to ensure completion of funded projects. This is normal employment
practice for most employers and indeed the Universities already
do this with their teaching staff. When a new taught course or
module it announced, a university does not generally seek to contract
a new cohort of staff to undertake it. As with any enterprise,
should the source of research income dry up, the fact of redundancy
must be faced: contracts at universities have long since ceased
to offer tenure.
7.3 It is to some extent understandable
that the Universities have not embraced the need to change their
ways. The inertia in the culture has been remarked in the RCI
reports on the Concordat and experiences of the way in which the
universities have addressed the relatively minor proposals embodied
in the "Concordat" indicate that they will not change
their practices without pressure. Added to this is their poor
record on managing and developing staff. This is attested by the
response to a request, by the Higher Education Funding Council,
to submit strategies outlining how the universities would spend
their share of £330 million on offer to improve management
of human resources. Of the 130 responses initially received, only
42 were full. The only major research universities to submit a
full strategy were apparently UCL, Oxford, Warwick and Southamptonthe
other strategies being described as "emerging". Major
weaknesses in submissions included lack of: "clear objectives
and priorities", "consideration of the significance
of the substance of corporate goals, including research",
"evidence to back up conclusions" and "detail on
how money was to be spent" (source: Research Fortnight 8;
24 October 2001 p4). All universities might reasonably be expected
to provide a statement of their commitment to significantly reduce
reliance on fixed-term contracts.
7.4 The Government appear to have missed
an important opportunity to persuade the universities to change
their treatment of CRS and the efficiency of the UK research enterprise.
There were expectations in many quarters that implementation of
the EU Fixed-Term Working Directive would place some pressure
on these institutions to do this. This expectation is indicated
in 3rd RCI Report on the Concordat (paragraphs 13 and 28 of the
3rd RCI report). However, it is now expected that the `objective
reasons' clause will be used to avoid changing current practice,
on the basis that research contract income is not guaranteed.
That this is a smoke screen is highlighted in paragraph 7.2 above,
and this may be tested in the courts. However, more explicit legislation
and regulations, driven by a clear policy, would avoid this and
could make it clear what is expected.