Memorandum submitted by Dr Stephen Collins
1. I am writing as a person with first-hand
experience of contract research. I have been employed on fixed-term
contracts for over eight years, located at five different departments
in four different universities (all pre-92). (There have also
been periods of unemployment between contracts.) My longest contract
has been for three years and the shortest for two months. I am
currently a Research Fellow in a large Chemistry department which
was awarded a grade 5 in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise
2. (This is to aid understanding of the
rest of this letter.) In my experience of Chemistry departments
most CRS have a PhD and are employed as postdoctoral research
assistants (also known as PDRAs or "postdocs") and are
often called Research Fellows, although universities vary a little
in this. A minority of CRS, typically with a BSc or MSc, are employed
as Research Assistants. There are also a few technicians employed
on fixed-term contracts funded by research contracts. The boss
of each CRS is known as the Principal Investigator (PI).
On Government Agencies
3. Government agencies (ie HEFCE and the
Research Councils) send out mixed messages. The last RAE, organised
by HEFCE and held in 2001, recognised postdocs as researchers
and included them in numbers of research active staff, but only
on the basis of 10 per cent of a lecturer! On the one hand EPSRC
now sends out an end of contract Training and Career Development
questionnaire to CRS employed on contracts funded by EPSRC. In
addition, in 2000, they ran a number of Career Development Schools
for postdocs. (I am not sure if they have repeated them since.)
On the other hand, EPSRC does not appear to do anything (apart
from produce some statistics) with the results of the questionnaires;
it still does not, I believe, allow CRS to apply for grants in
their own right (unlike some of the other research councils) and
continues to use "spine point 6" as the default salary
position for new grants awarded.
On central functions of Universities
4. My current University includes in its
Handbook for Academic and Academic-related staff the statement
"Status of academic-related staffThe University affirms
that staff in the academic-related categories are perceived as
having status equal to that of academic staff". The treatment
of postdocs received by the central functions of the University
has improved over the last few years, although they were not "bad"
to start withwith postdocs having equal access to library,
email, pension scheme and staff development courses. Improvements
include staff development and Careers running courses especially
for CRS (including an Introductory Meeting for new CRS (which
included promotion of the Concordat)), a Review and Development
scheme for CRS and the Careers Service explicitly including CRS,
the abolition of waiver clauses and eligibility to participate
in governance of the University on the same footing as academic
staff. It is not perfect though. During a period of illness the
amount of time that the University will pay full pay varies according
to length of service. This indirectly discriminates against CRS
who move between universities.
5. Departments vary and not just from one
University to another but within the same University. My current
department continues to treat postdocs as second-class citizens.
It is hard to see what difference the Concordat has had, apart
from the few things imposed on it by the central functions of
the University eg Review and Development Scheme (to which only
lip service can be paid). Instances of this treatment vary from
the almost trivial to much more serious issues which impinge on
the ability to carry out research effectively, as will be outlined
in paragraph 6 below. All however, are demeaning and contrary
to the spirit, if not the letter of the Concordat.
6. Examples of differential treatment shown
by my department to postdocs are:
(a) The announcement of the RAE result last
December (a trivial example). The Head of Department sent an email
to lecturers, technicians and secretaries on 11 December informing
them of the result. The result was made public on 14 December
but postdocs only received an email from the Head of Department
informing them about of the result on 19 December!
(b) Mail boxes for postdocs are in the room
with (and shared with) those for the postgraduates (arranged alphabeticallyone
for each letter of the alphabet) whilst the mail boxes for the
lecturers are in the mail room (one each).
(c) As far as I am aware all postdocs share
an office and all lecturers have an office of their own. At the
moment I share a small office with three others. In my previous
position I shared a large office with 17 others.
(d) A more important example is the issue
of the ability to spend money from a research grant without authorisation
from the PIthis occurs in only a small minority of cases
(even though the CRI says that "CRS should be allowed to
develop skills required to manage the budgetary and project planning
aspects of research").
(e) Postdocs are not allowed to attend Staff
Meetings and have no formal say in the way that the department
is run even on items that directly affect their research eg provision
of technical services.
(f) Recently a special meeting was held by
the Head of Department about restructuring the department. Lecturers,
technicians and secretaries were invited but not postdocs. Following
that the Head of Department sent out a "Department of Chemistry
Newsletter" by email to the same groups of people. I sent
him an email asking him if there had been an oversight as regards
the postdocs and he said nothere was no oversight. He had
promised the "permanent" staff a newsletter and so it
went exactly to those he had intended. As well as ignoring postdocs,
who are also affected by any restructuring (eg through decreased
availability of technical facilities), he is also wasting a potentially
valuable source of useful ideas.
(g) Access cards for the departmental fax
machine are issued only to permanent members of staff. Although
the use of email has diminished the use of fax there are still
times when it is necessary eg to supply a diagram for a new design
of apparatus, and trying to find an access card is not always
the easiest job in the world.
(h) Postdocs (plus technicians and secretaries)
are actually listed on the departmental web page. This is not
usual practice. Some departments (eg Chemistry departments at
Glasgow and Bristol Universities list academic, secretarial and
technical staff but not postdocs. Other departments (eg Chemistry
departments at Cambridge and Newcastle) list academic staff plus
a few extras such as Senior Research Fellows.
7. Recognising that the treatment of postdocs
in my department is not in accordance with the Concordat I saw
the (then) Head of Department in Spring 2001 and complained about
our treatment. Even after showing him parts of the Concordat and
RCI he managed to come up with some petty excuse for every point
I raised. On the minor point of the location of mail boxeshe
said that these could not be in the mail room with those for other
staff because there was not enough space (something which is not
correct). On the more important issue of postdocs attending staff
meetings he said that it was felt (by the departmental executive
committee) inappropriate that postdocs should attend given that
permanent clerical and technical staff are not invited. (As an
aside it is interesting to note that the definition of "Staff"
changes to suit the occasion. In the context of mail boxes it
is all lecturers, technicians and secretarial. In the context
of staff meeting it means lecturers plus permanent academic related
(eg laboratory manager) and a few special fixed-term people(!)
eg Royal Society Fellows.) Consequently I corresponded with the
(then) Pro Vice Chancellor for Research. He said that the University
took its responsibilities under the Concordat seriously but in
practice the University is a very large organisation which operates
a devolved management structure. In other words the University
lets the departments do what they like, which in practice means
that if they want to ignore the Concordat, as mine does, then
Role of Principal Investigator (PI)
8. The PI is more than simply a line manger
but has an element of the Power of Patronage as regards CRS eg
in my current department it is up to the PI to decide what access
the CRS have to spend money from the research grant. This power
is not necessarily a bad thing eg I have had contracts extended
at the last minute (as opposed to being unemployed) through the
intervention of my PI. However, it is a position that can exploited.
EPSRC run a one-day training course for PIs called "The Management
and Development of Contract Researchers". It would be good
if all PIs and Heads of Department (if not a PI) were made to
go on this or a similar course.
Implications of having contracts
9. The existence of a succession of fixed-term
contracts does have an effect on the staff themselves, notably
financially (see also paragraph 10 below) and/or socially. New
CRS are generally happy enough to get paid to do research and
are not so concerned about the insecurity (or the treatment that
they receive). After a few years of contract research people start
to settle down and become reluctant to move for a temporary position
(especially if they have families). This can lead to excessive
travelling (and increased living costs) eg travelling daily from
Liverpool to Leeds and weekly from Glasgow to Sheffield are both
examples I have come across. The financial insecurity also has
an effect on planning: eg if a contract finishes in Spring can
one afford to arrange a summer holiday before another contract
is obtained?, and b) at what point does one take the risk of trying
to buy a property? In addition, as mentioned in paragraph 4, the
amount of time that the University will pay full pay during a
period of illness typically varies according to length of service
which means that CRS that move between Universities have to start
from scratch each time they move. It will be interesting to see
what effect The Fixed-Term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable
Treatment) Regulations 2002 have when they come into effect.
10. Although contracts of employment are
issued by the Universities, salary levels are decided between
the CRS and the PI with the University effectively just rubber
stamping the agreement provided a few small conditions are met,
notably "the age 27 point" (which is the minimum salary
for someone aged 27 or over). This is not a problem if the postdoc
is relatively young but if the postdoc is more experienced it
can result in the PI exploiting the postdoc. This can occur when
postdocs move between projects and are not given the increments
to which they are entitled. This is particularly the case where
experienced (and so presumably more productive) postdocs are appointed
on grants awarded by Research Councils on the standard spine point
6. Postdocs facing unemployment and those from abroad (because
they do not know what they are worth) are particularly vulnerable.
11. When I was offered my current contract
(four days after my previous one had ended) I was offered a choice25
per cent pay cut or unemployment. I chose employment and am now
currently earning an amount equivalent to the lowest decile of
salary for Chartered Chemists of my age (Source: Royal Society
of ChemistryTrends in Remuneration UK Survey Report 2002remuneration
of Chartered Chemists in all classes of employment). I am not
happy with the system that allows me to be exploited in this manner
(and treats me as a second-class citizen in the process).
12. Only a few ever make a career in contract
research. These CRS are often associated with the same PI for
a number of years and have some management in running the PI's
research group, typically becoming a Senior Research Fellow in
the process. For the rest of CRS, contract research is still not
a career and is at best a stepping stone to a career. It is hard
to see how it can ever become a career. In a career I expect to
get rewarded for success and hard work. At the moment it does
not matter how hard I work or how successful I am, my job will
come to an end (ignoring the small possibility that it will be
extended temporarily). To get a career I will have to leave CRS
and eg become a lecturer, or industrial researcher.
13. There is one area where the existence
of fixed-term contracts is useful for researchers. This is where
they are in a foreign country, such as funded under the EU mobility
schemes, as they allow an "easy" route into experiencing
living and working (temporarily) in another country.
14. EPSRC carry out end of contract surveys
but appears to do nothing with the information (apart from compile
tables of statistics). Departments do vary. It would be useful
to have more background information on the treatment of CRS. One
possibility would be to ensure that all CRS when they leave, whether
part way through their contract or at the end, and whether funded
by a research council or not, fill out a suitable survey.
15. However, the basic problem is not with
monitoring the Concordat but with ensuring that it is implemented.
One option would be to include treatment of CRS as a factor in
the next RAE. However, the disadvantages of this are that it would
be only one component amongst many, and it is a while until the
next RAE. Another option would be to link funding by Research
Councils to it. A few years ago one research council (ESRC?) linked
funding for PhD studentships to completion rates of PhD students.
A few departments lost funding through this. The Universities
responded by altering their rules (for all PhD students) to speed
up completion of PhDs. A similar approach could be taken with
departments nowlinking funding from research councils with
treatment of CRS. This might seem a bit drastic but it is hard
to see how a more gentle approach (such as has been tried up until
now) will work. The basic problem is one of department's attitude
not facilities or money.
16. Consequently I suggest that the Committee
ensures that the following are implemented:
(1) Increase monitoring of the treatment
of all CRS, for example by ensuring that all CRS when they leave,
whether part way through their contract or at the end, and whether
funded by a research council or not, fill out a suitable survey.
(2) Give CRS a higher profile in the next
(3) Allow CRS to apply for grants from all
Research Councils in their own right.
(4) Ensure that all PIs and Heads of Department
(if not a PI) go on a training course, such as the EPSRC one called
"The Management and Development of Contract Researchers".
(5) Change the default position on Research
Council grants from spine point 6 to any on the RA1A scale.
(6) Link funding from research councils with
treatment of CRS in individual University departments.
21 June 2002