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


Memorandum submitted by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES)


  The Roberts Review, the team of which included an IES secondee, highlighted many of the issues relating to the supply of science and engineering (S&E) skills. An earlier IES Report for the European Commission Assessing the supply and demand for scientists and technologists (Pearson, 2001) highlighted the selective nature of skills shortages in the UK and Europe. These do not affect all disciplines and locations, higher education is the sector most under pressure. In the last two years, while skills shortages have worsened, the available evidence suggest that they are still selective with major differences between disciplines eg with biologists being "over supply" contrasting with a shortage in IT (Pearson, 2001, IES 2001). Higher education is still suffering the greater problems although these are selective.

  Research S&Es are employed in HE, the public and private sectors with a significant number in "not for profit" organisations eg Imperial Cancer Research. However, only HE works with a preponderance of its research staff on short-term contracts. It is one of one of three major constraints it has been facing in recruiting S&Es, the others being poor facilities and equipment, which is now being improved following recent funding increases for equipment, and low relative salaries. Despite these constraints a multitude of short term posts are filled each year and recruitment difficulties are not endemic.

  In the public sector they also experience recruitment difficulties and here pay has been the major constraint. In general and in contrast, the private sector suffers far fewer constraints. Despite these problems the UK attracts many foreign S&Es to work in all sectors (Pearson, 2002).

  One of the main challenges affecting recruiters in all sectors relates to the difficulty in attracting experienced S&Es who have good project management skills. This reflects both a rapid growth in the demand for such skills, and the lack of relevant training in these skills by earlier generations.

  In as far as one can look ahead, the demand for S&Es will continue to develop in different ways in relation to individual disciplines and locations. On the supply side we have already seen how the supply of engineering graduates has shown little growth while the supply of biologists continues to grow rapidly (Pearson, 2001). An organisation's ability to recruit and retain good staff will depend not only on the overall national balance between the supply and demand for S&Es, but also in terms of its own competitive position which embraces factors such as pay, career prospects, the availability of state of the art equipment, working conditions and location.

  The position in HE is made more difficult by the widespread use of short term contracts which constrains both their ability to attract and retain staff, as does low relative pay. Having many staff on short-term contracts also limits the extent to which they invest in the development of such staff, thus constraining the supply of more experienced staff for the future.


  This section considers why this prevalence of short-term contracts is unnecessary and suggest that HE could move to a position offering permanent contracts which would lead to easier recruitment, greater stability, and greater investment in longer term skills. This could be done without unduly constraining management's ability to adjust their staffing to changing demands.

  We cite by way of example, the case of the IES. As noted above all the IES income comes from short-term, competitive contracts.

  Despite this reliance on "short money" we have confidence in our long-term success. We invest heavily in staff development to ensure we win sufficient future business to sustain our competitive position in the market for independent research. In this way we are able to make long-term commitments to our staff. In return staff are flexible as to the assignments on which they work.

  IES offers permanent contracts to all its staff, bar one or two in occasional posts. We do this:

    —  To attract and retain staff in a highly competitive market. For example, we normally retain 85—90 per cent of our staff each year and our able to build their skills for their future. We also recognise that staff will also wish to develop their careers in other directions and will from time to time leave.

    —  To motivate existing staff, who would otherwise spend disproportionate time in job search

    —  To minimise the time and resources spent in recruitment, induction and staff contract administration.

    —  To maximise the returns from our investment in staff development to enhance our research outputs, to maintain rigorous standards, to develop the next generation of senior researchers and research managers, and to meet the ever more challenging demands of funders.

    —  In the event that a member of staff's skills were not able to be utilised in existing programmes, and they could not be redeployed to another programme, then their contracts would have to be terminated in the normal manner. This is not a normal occurrence.


  In the case of HE we believe that the preponderance of short-term contracts is unnecessary and counter productive. It is a product of history, a fragmentation of research capacity, and a failure of management to understand that they can manage in a different way. It causes problems in recruitment, retention and the development of experienced researchers, disrupts research programmes, and involves unnecessary transactions costs for both staff and higher education.

  We believe that the prevalence of short-term contracts could be reduced if:

    —  Research and associated staffing is concentrated in centres which have sufficient critical mass to support scientific endeavour, and which can invest in appropriate facilities and staff development.

    —  Such research centres have the capability to manage and develop their staff. This would require investment in the skills of the management, the management processes by which such centres are run, and their approaches to funding.

    —  Research funders, when allocating long-term funding, should consider incorporating a requirement into their contracts to ensure that those receiving their funds are managed effectively, thus building capability for the future.

    —  Managements and staff should recognise that their activities are not dissimilar to those in other parts of the economy and society, and recognise that if the demand for skills changes dramatically eg funding ceases and staff cannot be redeployed, then redundancy will be an inevitable consequence.

      We would be happy to elaborate further on these points if required.

    June 2002

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