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


Memorandum submitted by the John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK

  John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK is an independent, world-leading research centre in plant and microbial sciences. The JIC has 791 staff and students who carry out high quality fundamental, strategic and applied research to understand how plants and microbes work at the molecular, cellular and genetic levels. The JIC also trains scientists and students, collaborates with many other research laboratories and communicates its science to end-users and the general public. The JIC is grant-aided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

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

  No. The John Innes Centre seeks to deliver world-class scientific research and this is achieved through a talented, well-trained and highly motivated staff. The current breakdown of all staff is as follows:

per cent
Permanent staff
Short-term research contracts
Visiting workers/PhD students
100 per cent

  Staff on short-term research contracts account for just under a third of the total staff. New platform technologies are creating new opportunities for employment. The Centre strives to provide a stimulating and well-resourced environment, which will ensure the ability to recruit high-quality staff, at all levels, and in which individuals can learn and apply new skills and undertake research that will advance their careers. Turnover of staff, at all levels, maintain a vibrant research environment, and is an inevitable consequence of the established mechanisms of science research funding.

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

  Inevitably not all short-term contract research staff will find permanent employment in the research sector. The Centre recognises it employs a very large number of project scientists, with fixed-duration contracts, who need a framework within which they can manage and plan their careers. We recognise that in many cases the uncertainty associated with short-term contracts has consequential problems including motivation and retention. We identify a major systemic requirement for a structure in which the inevitable progression for the majority, from PhD student to post-doc and out into the wide world, is regarded as positive and of benefit to both science and the rest of society. We need to move towards a more positive mentoring system in which less emphasis is placed on a single career aspiration to be a group leader, and more on the value of training in hands-on, problem-solving science for a whole range of careers both in science and outside science. Leaving research science, for example, to train as a school science teacher (for which we have a national shortage), should be viewed as a positive virtue, not as a failure. This is also an argument for not reducing the number of PhD students trained. A more proactive culture, that highlights early mentoring and professional careers advice, will be required. A limited number of career-track positions will be available at the John Innes Centre and could be won in open competition by a JIC project scientist. However, due to the large numbers involved most project scientists will move away from the John Innes Centre to pursue their careers. Indefinite continuation on short-term contracts, as a project scientist, is not considered a desirable option once the six-year post-doctoral period has elapsed. JIC project leaders are asked to ensure that as part of their mentoring role the career plans of project scientists should be continually reviewed.

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

  It is unclear whether "leave" refers to research science in general or their current lab in particular. Comments on the former case are presented above, but in terms of the latter it is self evident that the 239 staff on short-term contracts, cannot populate the permanent 55 group leader positions! Of course, this is a direct consequence of the way the scientific enterprise has evolved globally over the last century. Almost all science is now conducted in teams led by a group leader. This is an efficient system that has survived selection pressures, and is reflected universally in the funding structures that release competitively won pots of money designed to hire a research worker for a short fixed time, commonly three years. It is clear that at an Institute like ours the majority of the creative and productive benchwork is delivered by post-docs on short-term contracts.

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

  There is no "right balance". The number of research groups nationally, and the funds available to them to run the groups, varies with the discipline concerned, the political priorities of the day and the supply of labour (both in and out). The balance is a delicate one, but with strong selection pressures that push it to adapt rapidly. At present, for example, the increased opportunities for funding via the EU Framework programmes have inevitably increased the number of opportunities for short-term contracts. On the other hand the European Directive on Fixed Term Working is driving us in the other direction.

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

  We welcome the Concordat, and the answer is a qualified yes, particularly in highlighting the need for training. At JIC there is a dedicated training Officer and as part of the annual assessment procedure individuals are asked to discuss their training needs and there are a range of computing, management and science communication courses available. The perceived lack of career structures for research scientists is not helpful, and we believe that nationally and locally far more positive career advice is needed, particularly for new and exciting exit-routes from science. There has been no concerted action to solve many of the problems identified by the Concordat. For example, there need to be obligations in the grant system for better training and career advice and there is currently an unresolved tension between the demands for research excellence on grants and the demands for better and wider training.

6.  How should policy move forward?

  The EU Working Time Directive will have an impact on local policies and unless there is a major change in national and international funding mechanisms that support science by the provision of short-term funding then the situation is unlikely to change. However, locally, we believe the provision of more focused and positive career advice is a priority, and that our alumni are a rich resource for this. Both BBSRC and JIC should be offering regular career days together with enthusiastic employers from all sectors that would value staff with trained logical, practical scientific minds. Mentoring in this area at the beginning of a post-doc's career is crucial. Lastly, salaries for post-docs on short-term contracts is still a major problem. Debt accumulated during the minimum six years undergraduate and postgraduate training is severe in many cases, and current salaries are not a major recruiting tool.

24 June 2002

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