Memorandum submitted by Mr Jonathan Bates
The evidence below is submitted by me on a personal
basis and does not represent the view of any organisation. It
is based upon my experience in dealing with the issues posed by
the use of short-term contracts for research staff during a period
of some fifteen years when I have been involved at a senior level
in Human Resources.
Does the preponderance of short-term contracts
1. Yes. I base this on an analysis of the
advantages/disadvantages of the current situation:
In my view, the main advantage of short-term
contracts in science is the ability to provide for regular injections
of new blood and thus new ideas. Given the importance of new ideas/ways
of approaching problems within research (far more so than in many
other fields of activity) this should not be underestimated. I
work within a scientific organisation where turnover is as low
as 3 per centwhich is not healthy.
I would reject suggestions that other advantages
include the ability to link employment to income streams (this
is no more valid for science than any other field of activity;
the three-year period of a research grant might indeed be seen
as relatively secure by some of those working in the commercial
world.). I also have a degree of cynicism about suggestions that
short-term contracts can be justified on the basis that individuals
are being "trained", since my experience is that most
of those employed at postdoctoral levels in Universities or other
establishments are not receiving a significantly greater degree
of training/development than would apply to someone at a comparative
stage in most other occupations.
In making career choices individuals will be
a wish to find employment that is
satisfying and fulfilling
a wish to advance (develop themselves/their
a need to provide for themselves/their
Short-term employment may satisfy the first
of these but poses problems under both the other headings. The
very best may have the comfort of knowing that whatever happens
they are always likely to find another position and one that is
rewarding but even they will need to be able to repay their student
debts or convince a mortgage provider to offer a loan. For those
who are not amongst the very best the absence of a career structure
or any degree of security makes science and engineering seem unattractive.
This is all the more the case because short-term employment is
very much the exception rather than the norm in the UK, with the
vast majority of professions offering permanent positions.
2. There is therefore a direct conflict
between two key driversthe health of science (which could
be said to argue for some use of short-term contracts) and the
need to satisfy the reasonable aspirations of individuals (which
suggest short-term contracts are problematic).
3. Given the difficulties in presenting
science as a good career choice, with particularly low take-up
amongst key sections of the population, my inclination is to suggest
that the disadvantages of short-term contracts outweigh the advantages
and that the main justification for themthe ability to
provide regular injections of new bloodneeds to be addressed
in some other way. I believe this will have to happen, in any
event, because of the changes in the legal status of short-term
contracts (see below).
What are the implications for researchers and
4. By its nature, short-term employment
will create both a stimulus and a disadvantage for those wishing
to develop careers in research. The stimulus will be the motivation
to move on and gain experience in a variety of organisations/environments.
This is important and career advice to researchers should emphasise
the value of mobility.
5. The disadvantage, however, of regular
"enforced" moves is that individuals do not have the
bedrock on which to build their careers. Long-term employment
gives individuals the ability to take advantage of opportunities
to train and develop. There will be greater scope for taking advantage
of the opportunities which employers offer individuals who wish
to advance. Sabbaticals or other breaksincluding, importantly,
maternity or paternity leavecan be taken, knowing that
there is a job to return to and a career to pick up.
Is there evidence that the present situation causes
good researchers to leave?
6. In my experience, researchers regularly
leave short-term contract employment in advance of the end dates,
with subsequent disruption to activities, giving as their reason
the need to obtain another or a more secure post. Feedback in
exit questionnaires indicated that the jobs they moved to were
often in science but in a significant number of cases were in
other sectors (eg teaching, financial services). What is also
significant is that those on short-term contracts start to spend
increasing amounts of time looking for their next job opportunity
as the contract comes within a year or so of its end date.
7. In one particular area, I am concerned
that short-term contracts do cause good researchers to abandon
science: I believe that the short-term contract system particularly
mitigates against women. The coincidence of a career break to
start a family with a break in career because a contract has run
out appears to result in many women deciding that they should
leave research altogether (since it becomes difficult then to
find a new job after a few years out of a research environment).
I believe there has been inadequate research on this point but
there is much anecdotal evidence to support it.
What would be the right balance between contract
and permanent research staff in Universities and research institutions?
8. This is a difficult question to answer.
However, on the basis that a degree of turnover and new blood
is desirable I could envisage a model which results in 10 per
cent of staff leaving and being replaced each year as having attractions.
9. However, is the question relevant, given
the changes that are taking place in the legal framework governing
short-term employment? Legally there will, in future, be no difference
between short-term and permanent staff in respect of their right
to expect continued employment. The individual on a short-term
contract cannot simply be "let go". Employers will have
to use redundancy processes and pay compensation. This will minimise
the advantages to employers of using fixed-term employment, particularly
since offering employment on this basis may result in jobs seeming
10. I would therefore envisage a need to
develop other models to ensure turnover/new blood. These might
include developing career pathways that actively encourage individuals
to move between employers in the research sector. This is an area
that would profit from greater attention.
Has the Concordat and Research Careers Initiative
made any difference?
11. Both are steps in the right direction
and, at the very least, have led to a greater awareness of the
issues and to some improvements. However, I think there needs
to be a more substantial initiative and I believe the funders
must use their position of influence with the Universities to
ensure that research staff are given far greater opportunities
to gain transferable skills as part of the process of building
How should policy move forward?
12. As I have intimated elsewhere in this
paper, I believe that the disadvantages of short-term contracts
outweigh the advantages and that they create an environment in
which scientific research is seen as a poor career choice. Their
major advantagethe ability to ensure turnoverneeds
to be retained but this will have to be done in some other way,
not least because of the change in the legal framework governing
fixed-term contracts. The most sensible way of achieving it would
be to create an environment in which individuals choose to move
on because they see it as advantageous, both in terms of developing
their careers and gaining satisfaction, eg by addressing a new
13. My experience of science in the UK and
internationally is that the very best individuals will move on
as a matter of course and will be in demand. They will not wish
to remain with one employer. We need to ensure that research opportunities
and research careers prompt mobility without needing the blunt
tool of short-term employment to force such movement to take place.
If we can achieve this we will present science as a far better