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


Memorandum submitted by the University of Leeds

  As an employer of some 900 research staff on short-term contracts the University of Leeds welcomes the opportunity to submit this memorandum in response to the Committee's inquiry.

1.  Does the preponderance of short-term research contracts really matter? Why?

  Whilst we believe that some turnover of research staff is healthy—both from the point of view of the researcher and the institution—we also have concern about the current model, which presupposes that high quality long-term research can be conducted by short-term and sometimes de-motivated staff. It is frequently difficult, particularly in disciplines that are in competition with better paid professions in other sectors, to find suitable recruits. Induction and training of new recruits takes time and, where the contract is particularly short (say one year or less), these activities can be squeezed out because of the pressing need to complete the project. Training of the researcher for continuing employability beyond the life of the project is often perceived as a low priority. Research staff on short-term contracts often leave before the end of the project or otherwise devote time to finding new employment. This vicious cycle can adversely affect their commitment to the research and to the employing department.

2.  What are the implications for researchers and their careers?

  Because of the need to complete projects, departments sometimes pay only secondary attention to the career development needs of their research staff and to the training and development needed for their continuing employability. Some are reluctant to make available development opportunities to their fixed-term staff; others are reluctant to encourage these staff to seize the opportunities available. There is a tension between the need to complete the project and the need to develop the staff. Researchers can get into a downward spiral of unemployability. Ever-narrowing specialisation and failure to take advantage of the many training and development opportunities offered by departments and the University can lead to a situation in which some staff are employed on multiple short-term contracts. Eventually they can find it difficult to obtain employment outside the HE sector. Whilst we would not suggest that all research staff should be employed on permanent contracts, we believe that there should be the possibility of more being thus employed.

3.  Is there evidence that the present situation causes good researchers to leave?

  There is no doubt that the current position leads to low morale among research staff. Arguably those with the most foresight leave their research posts. A small percentage obtain academic posts. Others follow the industrial trajectory. However, evidence from the House of Lords Select Committee on Science & Technology (Academic Research Careers for Graduate Scientists, HMSO, 1995) showed that, between 1977-78 and 1993-94, a 200 per cent increase in the number of contract research staff was matched by only a 2 per cent increase in the number of permanent academic posts. A subsequent CVCP study pointed out that the number of people completing research contracts in any year exceeded the number of vacant permanent positions arising by five times. Dr David Clark, Director of Engineering and Science at EPSRC, made the same point at a CRAC seminar on 24 March 1998 on`Unlocking Potential: careers guidance for contract research staff and research students'.The inevitable consequence of this shortage of academic posts means that good researchers leave. Many, however (including those with less foresight and those with misplaced aspirations of obtaining an academic post), get caught in the spiral mentioned in section 2 above. Perhaps, however, you should not be asking whether good researchers are leaving but whether the present situation causes good people not to apply for such posts in the first place. The answer is most certainly yes. Both the recently-published UUK report on`Recruitment and Retention in UK Higher Education'and the Roberts `SET for Success' review point to the difficulties not only of retention in some subject areas but of recruitment. The combination of unattractive salaries and short-term contracts could prove fatal to the future of British science in some areas.

4.  What would be the right balance between contract and permanent research staff in universities and research institutions?

  This question has to be set in the context of funding resources. Under the dual support system one third of our income comes from QR HEFC and two thirds from short-term external contracts. The proportion of QR which funds mostly permanent posts is reducing. This has increased the ratio of externally funded short-term posts to permanent posts. The success of universities in gaining external income has not been matched by a similar growth in HEFC QR income. This is adversely affecting the number of permanent research staff, the number of permanent research support staff and research infrastructure. A more ideal ratio would be 50/50 permanent/fixed-term. This could be facilitated by moderation of the funding model or by the introduction of longer-term rolling contracts and programmes by research councils. However, a balance has to be maintained to allow flexibility in allocation of resources, to enable the research landscape to move rapidly and to support new and emerging areas.

5.  Have the Concordat and the Research Careers Initiative made any difference?

  Yes. See Annex 1 for the measures introduced by the University of Leeds. Annex 2 sets out the staff development courses currently available through its Staff and Departmental Development Unit (SDDU). The Concordat has forced universities to face up to the issues. The RCI keeps us on our toes through its annual monitoring and disseminates some useful good practice. These are necessary in the current regime. However, whilst they help to alleviate some of the problems associated with the preponderance of fixed-term contracts for research staff, they do not help to solve them.

6.  How should policy move forward?

  The research councils must be forced to adopt the Concordat more proactively. EPSRC will not, for example, allow someone to be both a grant holder and employed as a researcher on an EPSRC award. This is both counterproductive to the career development of promising research staff and means that such research staff are in effect debarred from being entered in the RAE. Overheads on all research awards should include a realistic element for training and career development. All research councils should more actively promote the fact that suitably-qualified and experienced research staff can be appointed on higher salaries. All of these measures would help to ensure parity of esteem and parity of training and development with academic staff on permanent contracts. The adoption by universities of greater use of rolling (as opposed to purely fixed-term) contracts and a move towards more permanent research staff should be encouraged through realistic government funding of science. Although the European Directive will to some extent have an impact on this, this is a default measure. Universities and government must work proactively in partnership to address the under-funding of science which has led to the need for the current inquiry. Additionally more longer-term programme and platform funding from research councils would allow universities to take a longer-term perspective in planning and managing contract research and staff.


  The University has recently carried out a study into the promotion and progression of women and men in the Biosciences at Leeds. The study aimed to explore the factors that determine whether or not women (and men) in the Faculty of Biological Sciences seek promotion and/or transfer from contract research to academic posts, the considerations that influence their choices, and the internal and external barriers to promotion, whether real or perceived, that exist. The study elucidated several key areas in which changes in policy and ways of working, would be welcomed by women and men, academics and contract researchers. Suggestions for action arising from the study were targeted at those which could be effected internally within the Faculty of Biological Sciences, those which would require the approval of senior University management, and those which would require action at a national level. National actions identified are presented below as recommendations.


  i.  All major funding organisations should make their current eligibility criteria regarding employment and holding of grants easily accessible and widely known.

  ii.  Research Councils and the Wellcome Trust should consider revising eligibility criteria to make it easier for contract researchers to hold grants in their own or joint names.

  iii.  Universities UK and the universities themselves through HEFC should collect and present better destination data on contract research staff:

    —  What proportion can expect to be appointed to lectureships?

    —  What proportion go to industry or other employment where their research skills are used?

    —  How many end up in employment in which these skills are not used?

    —  Can ever increasing numbers be justified?

  iv.  HEFCE should re-consider the inclusion of contract research staff in the RAE:

    —  Disincentive to academic staff to "grow" independent researchers.

    —  Disincentive to academic staff to co-hold awards with contract researchers.

  v.  The Concordat should be revised to recognise that:

    —  Only a minority of contract researchers are able to obtain lectureships. Training and professional development needs will vary depending upon career destinations.

    —  Some contract researchers want permanent research posts in academia. Presently this is not possible.

    —  Some contract researchers are high flyers but many are not. All want to be treated fairly and to realise their potential to the full. Again this should be reflected in different development paths.

    —  Some contract researchers are already in senior positions and should be treated accordingly.

    —  The working life of academics might be improved by being able to delegate to experienced contract researchers. To facilitate this, terms of employment should allow for a maximum utilisation rate of 80 per cent on a specific project allowing 20 per cent for within post development (such as staff training and development, broader training for alternative career paths, personal research time, development of new research proposals).

  vi.  The implementation of the Concordat by individual HEIs and research funding bodies should be monitored more rigorously; all funders should be required to sign up to it; sanctions should be applied where it is not implemented.

  vii.  Research councils and funders should place greater emphasis on development of researchers, both for careers in academia and in the public and private sectors.

  viii.  Research councils and funders should increase the proportion of longer-term programme and platform or portfolio awards.

21 June 2002

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