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 usedwith advantageto 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
unestablishedthe "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
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 committedboth 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 meuntil
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,
sinceas I know to my own costone 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
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