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


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 really matter?

  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 cent—which 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 motivated by:

    —  a wish to find employment that is satisfying and fulfilling

    —  a wish to advance (develop themselves/their career)

    —  a need to provide for themselves/their families

  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 drivers—the 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 them—the ability to provide regular injections of new blood—needs 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 their careers?

  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 breaks—including, importantly, maternity or paternity leave—can 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 less attractive.

  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 careers.

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 advantage—the ability to ensure turnover—needs 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 challenge.

  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 career choice.

May 2002

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