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


Memorandum submitted by Dr Elizabeth Griffin


  As is well known, the practice of research by short-term contracts burgeoned because the supply of suitably-qualified researchers was substantially outnumbering available academic positions in universities. The short-term contract scheme was originally intended to employ a particular skill on a particular project for the limited duration. As such, and strictly as such, it is a useful scheme and could be retained within the grant system. It is also used—with advantage—to support a fresh post-doc for three years, possibly six, while she or he is gaining a foothold in academic research. However, it was allowing mature researchers to be kept on indefinitely through a series of (often nominally) disconnected grants that has caused so many problems.

2.  Does the preponderance of short-term research contracts really matter, and if so, why?

  The answers to this are pretty obvious, as anyone who has attempted long-term planning with a team whose composition is likely to vary, whose size and support is uncertain, whose efficiency is sub-optimal because of personal worries and whose focus varies according to the attributes of different members, will know too well.

  The habit of employing some but not all researchers through short-term contracts is highly divisive, in that it creates a two-tier system not only of opportunities and expectations but also of personal worth and value. There is a non-negligible element of luck in who is appointed to a permanent post (eg being in the right place at the right time, and/or able to contribute to an area of science which happens to be in vogue), and the implication that those who are supported on short-term contracts are in some way failures and inferior is both false and undeserved. Moreover, the attendant disadvantages of being on a short-term contract (lack of job security, promotion prospects or pension safeguards, lack of departmental and university status, absence of development opportunities) create a double handicap for the unfortunate contract researcher, widening the gulf between the established and the unestablished—the "haves" and the "have-nots"—in a way that brings no good whatsoever to the group, the department or the university, to the science or to the students the group may influence. While some research can be completed within the usual grant period of two to three years, much cannot, and longer-term investigations which can be vital in many fields simply cannot be tackled effectively or consistently by a team which has no guaranteed future.

  Why do universities accept the two-tier system as though there were no possible alternative? The same money, being spent on the same people but under conditions of secured employment, would return a far richer harvest. Those with permanent positions and busy with teaching duties are totally dependent upon their grant-supported associates to undertake the lion's share of their own research. That is no secret, and it is also no secret that the permanent staff are accoladed for work done by people with miserable career prospects. It would be inhuman to maintain that such unfairness does not matter, and inhuman to do nothing radical about it.

  The proportion of short-term contract staff at Oxbridge amounts to some 65 per cent of the total scientific researchers. That percentage is higher there than elsewhere owing to the associated kudos. A past Chief Executive of PPARC said that he believed the short-term contract system is "commendable because it ensures that there are always plenty of fish in the pool to select from"—an attitude that is little short of disgusting as it makes pawns out of people.

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

  The implications are dastardly. When one passes 50 (as I did) without a proper job to one's name and there are no more available grants, who is going to look seriously at one's applications for a permanent position? Since becoming unfunded at age 52 I have applied for over 40 jobs, some of which were so precisely in my field that the job descriptions could have been written for me, but I was only short-listed (unsuccessfully) for one. The reasons given by the various committees do not follow a simple trend, and it has been made fairly clear to me that there is nothing wrong with the quality of what I do. It is the history of how I had been obliged to do it that is against me.

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

  "Good" is a vague adjective for a researcher; most, whether permanent or short-term, have specific skills that are more relevant to solving certain problems than others. However, anyone who is determined enough to stay somehow in the system with all its obvious faults is likely to be highly motivated and very committed—both extremely important qualities in any researcher. I have also heard of good, tenured researchers throwing in the towel when their applications for grant-funded staff have been repeatedly turned down.

  People on short-term contracts are restless, always looking round for something more permanent and always anxious to secure the next grant in the meantime before a current one expires. Several people to my knowledge have opted out of scientific research, rather than be pushed out of it or made redundant, as a matter of personal dignity, and no-one can blame them. Accordingly, there are fewer contracted research scientists who make it to retirement in that grade, and one important consequence is that they take away with them their accrued expertise and knowledge rather than ploughing it back into the research group or laboratory.

  A very relevant statistic is the fact that while women researchers number fewer than men in Oxbridge, there are numerically more of them on short-term contracts than there are men. In my own case I was steered into the cul-de-sac of short-term contracts by the Head of Department who maintained (in 1966) that I did not need a job "because I had a husband and I wasn't starving, but that they would find a grant for me—until I stopped because of children". Although statements like that can nowadays be challenged legally, the expectation that women should be regarded as more suitable for short-term contracts than for the high road of respectable careers is nevertheless a seriously entrenched attitude. The fact that the drop-out rate for women in mid-career (the so-called "leaky pipe") is much higher than for men is unmistakeable evidence that women researchers are being forced out by the short-term contract system, since—as I know to my own cost—one is unlikely to find grants to employ the same person for 35 years. A proportion must be "good" (from my above definition almost all are "good"), and many do not leave voluntarily but objecting strongly at the gross injustice of it all. On the other hand, few people drop out of permanent positions, even though (as I have witnessed) some become very inefficient and unproductive during their latter decades of tenure.

  Another important trend is the way that young researchers, probably potentially good ones, are going outside academia in increasing numbers rather than facing a lifetime of uphill struggles for funding within it. My own son, very able in science, refused to become a research academic, saying: "I don't want to have to spend my working life trailing round the world looking for small bits of money, as you are now having to." One has to question the economic sense of giving the able young a highly specialized education and then failing to provide most of them with career opportunities in which they can best be fruitful and repay the investment of all that tax-payers' money.

5.  What would be the right balance between contract and permanent research staff?

  I believe that the appointment of some staff, particularly at a technical level where specific expertise is needed, can be a critical factor in (say) equipment or technique development, and I also believe that the appointment of immediate post-doctoral staff up to a maximum of six years is probably a valid use of short-term contracts. With reduced numbers of short-term employees it would incidentally be easier for a university or department to handle the specific needs of that group.

6.  Have the Concordat and the RCI made any difference?

   This is rather like asking, "Have you stopped beating your wife?", since it is based on the premise that the two-tier system of permanent and contract staff is a fact of life, rather than an undesirable by-product of evolution that needs to be pulled up by the roots.

  When I first read the much-heralded Concordat I could scarcely believe my eyes. Apart from trying to insist that contracted women who needed to take time out for family reasons be accorded maternity rights equivalent to those of tenured staff, it was a thinly-dressed recipe for telling people without permanent jobs that they were unlikely to get one with the university and that they should look elsewhere for a proper career. What we needed at that juncture was not a Concordat but a Human Rights Declaration, a strong assertion "by the universities" that the people who worked in their groups and alongside, often in place of, their own faculty members, should be accorded the decency and the dignity of a proper career in which they would enjoy precisely the same rights and benefits as their tenured peers and counterparts. Instead, we had this flaccid document which tried to tell departments how to set up advisory sessions to warn contracted employees that they should go job-hunting.

  Some statistics show encouraging trends, though whether as a result of the RCI I cannot tell: several universities now insist that a person who has been employed through grants for more than eight (or it may be 10) years is bound by university rules to be offered a permanent job. Had I had such an option during my 29 years' funding on short-term contracts, I would not have been left to rot in penury at 52.

7.  How should policy move forward?

  The "policy" of short-term contract support for academic projects needs to be abolished and replaced by one that is just, fair and humane. One design is to establish Research Labs alongside universities, rather like MRC Labs, where collaborations are conducted between the employees and the permanent university staff much as before but where the "pool" of labour is always actively engaged in productive research instead of spending (as I have had to) up to four months per year just writing grant applications that get nowhere.

  Above all, it is crucial to take a long-term view of this matter. A relatively small amount of investment now will repay dividends, as groups will experience a permanence and cohesion for the first time, and those thus employed will no longer have to spend project time trying to work out their own futures. They will also be a more respected and encouraged, and correspondingly more productive, workforce.

11 June 2002

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