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


Memorandum submitted by the Institute of Physics

  The Institute wholeheartedly welcomes the Government's increased recognition of the problems and concerns relating to the employment of post-doctoral researchers (PDR) on short-term contracts. The explicit statement made in the Excellence and Opportunity White Paper (2000), the support for the Research Careers Initiative (RCI) by Lord Sainsbury and the specific recommendations in the recent Roberts' Report, have formed a foundation from which we hope the long-standing problems faced by PDRs can be addressed.

  The Institute fully endorses the pertinent recommendations cited in the Roberts' Report, on industry secondments, improved career paths and enhanced salaries for PDRs. The Roberts' Report has addressed all the major issues concerned with the supply and quality of science and engineering graduates and government needs to indicate its support for the recommendations quickly so that momentum is not lost. The Institute is looking for full funding of all the proposals with new money, not least enhanced salaries for PDRs.

  In addition, it is hoped that the European Community Directive on fixed term work (subject to consultation and implementation by the DTI), which aims to limit the number and extent of repeat of short-term contracts, will see the terms of employment for PDRs improve under the proposals. However, the Institute was concerned to note that last year's DTI consultation on the proposed implementation of the Directive concentrated on fixed-term staff employed in business, and had overlooked the university and higher education sector, which employs a significant number of fixed-term workers. PDRs compose a significant proportion of the public sector workers that the consultation stated make up half of the fixed-term contract workers in the UK, and most of the proposals highlighted in the consultation applied to PDRs.

  The Institute is of the view that the RCI Concordat has brought some certainty and flexibility for staff and HEIs in what is an essentially unstable environment, and it has helped with the retention of good PDRs. However, the good practice measures highlighted by the Concordat need to be adopted by more universities and the signatories to the Concordat need to implement still further its measures and become more fully engaged in RCI's activities. In addition, PDRs need greater awareness of the outcomes of RCI initiatives and the Concordat, as many still seem to be unaware of both.

  The Institute has been active in highlighting the issues pertinent to PDRs on short-term contracts and commissioned a study in July 1999 entitled, Career Paths of Physics Post-Doctoral Research Staff, which aimed to identify the main business sectors and occupations in which physicists who had undertaken one or two PDRs were employed, and to seek views of this group on the value of their PDR experience. Out of 448 former physics PDRs (who commenced their first PDR position between 1988-93), only 1.3 per cent were unemployed. Of those employed 47 per cent worked in higher education, 35 per cent worked in the private sector (particularly manufacturing) and 17 per cent worked in the public/voluntary sector.

  The key findings and recommendations of the study were:

    —  of the 47 per cent of PDRs employed in HEIs, only 1 in 5 secured a faculty post. A serious concern was that there is a lack of awareness amongst PDRs of whether a permanent faculty post can be secured, thus, there is a need for better career guidance and better management of expectations amongst those taking up PDR positions for the first time;

    —  one of the most surprising findings of the study was that 1 in 4 PDRs has spent more than six years in a PDR position, thus, the Government must encourage the consideration of alternative options of employment in the long-term interests of such career PDRs; and

    —  PDR research experience was viewed as making an important contribution to career development. However, half of those now employed in the private sector complained of the mismatch between the skills provided by PDR research and the skills required for their jobs, thus, more time should be made available for PDRs to engage in a broader range of career development activities.

  As a follow up to the study, in November 2000, the Institute held a policy seminar on Contract Research, where the aim was to ascertain what the Government and other organisations were doing to address the problems experienced by PDRs on short-term contracts. A copy of the report of the seminar is enclosed. The main conclusions from the seminar were that government was taking the problem seriously, as are the universities, but the overall feeling was that there was still a problem. Despite the fact that the PDRs present at the seminar had a commitment to scholarship and a love of physics, many had and would experience financial difficulties when it comes to applying for mortgages, being unable to start families and so on.

24 June 2002

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