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


Memorandum submitted by Dr Eva Link following the Evidence Session of 3 July 2002

  Following the Committee request to comment further on the issues discussed at the meeting I would like to concentrate on the principles of research and limitations derived from short-term contracts. Although many of the observations are obvious, they are frequently overlooked in the current climate of financial necessities.


  Research in science is a long-term gradually progressing activity demanding a high intellectual ability and, in case of experimental research, also technical knowledge and manual capability. While a library and all other sources of information provide a basic assistance to theoretical research, experimental research demands both a source of information and well-equipped, highly specialised laboratories.

  Young scientists develop their interest and ability to conduct research gradually by gaining knowledge and experience, as well as learning through successes and errors while guided by more senior colleagues and specialists in a particular field. Those involved in experimental research need also to gain an extensive knowledge in using various experimental methods and equipment to carry out their investigations without artefacts derived from technical errors.

  Once sufficiently independent/experienced, scientists define their own interests, form their own hypothesis and build their own infrastructure (ie own group, a laboratory, access to other laboratories and equipment within a department (s) /institute/university, as well as an intellectual collaboration) that allow them to research their field of interest using funds, predominantly external, awarded to them personally as one to five year grants.

  It takes many years and enormous effort to establish and constantly develop such infrastructure while being creative at the same time to progress with the research and teach others, as well as publish in peer-reviewed scientific journals, deal with an administrative aspect of the work and apply for further grants to ensure continuity of the research.


  Short-term contracts with their length of a few months to three years and without any obligation for their renewal make the above almost impossible because:

  1.  Inexperienced researchers are employed to perform particular, very specific (narrow) tasks. More frequently they move from one employer to another and, therefore, change a research field, less likely it is they gain sufficient knowledge and experience to build up their own interest and start their own research.

  Instead, they transform into well-qualified technicians with an ability to use various methods but at the expense of intellectual development and, therefore, progress to become independent scientists.

  2.  Even if an individual matures sufficiently to start his own research, the transition is hampered because:

    (a)  the individual has no freedom to carry out research of his own choice since short-term contracts are funded predominantly as a part of external grants awarded for a very specific project to someone else;

    (b)  the external grant-giving bodies usually do not accept applications and/or award funds to those not employed on university tenured posts. Without financial support a new research cannot start;

    (c)  for the same reason the individual cannot offer a post to junior researchers, ie a research assistant or even a technician (such posts are paid almost exclusively with external funds at present);

    (d)  cannot accept PhD students as this requires a long-term, continuous commitment and supervision that an individual employed on a short-term contract cannot provide.

  3.  Even in a very unlikely event of obtaining an external grant for the individual's own research and salary or a fixed-term external fellowship, the funds are too modest to cover more than just running expenses and small contribution to the laboratory needs. The individual still depends on his colleagues with the university posts to have access to the laboratories and equipment, as well as is forced to work on his own without a possibility of applying for more funds and forming his own group for the reasons specified in point 2.

  4.  Having neither his own group nor laboratory, a senior scientist employed on a short-term contract relies on a good will of and collaboration with those funded by universities becoming increasingly more dependent on this infrastructure developed by him over many years and within a particular institution he is working in.

  Termination of a series of short-term contracts that forces a senior scientist out of such infrastructure and to find an alternative employment usually terminates his research is more unlikely it is that the individual will find an alternative employer with a capacity to rebuild the infrastructure indispensable for his research, particularly if this infrastructure has to be dependent again on a laboratory access and a good will of others. (A frequent fear of potential competition from an independent scientist who is moving to the already existing research establishment makes such transfer to a new employer even less probable).

  5.  The above chain of events also totally hampers any career development and promotion adequate to the individual's achievement, as there is no career structure for those on short-term contracts.


  Once on a short-term contract the future of an individual is totally dependent on his immediate employer, ie a senior member of university staff who provides funds for the individual's salary and on overall attitude of the university towards individuals employed on short-term contracts.

University aspect

  Since, at present, short-term contracts are funded predominantly externally but issued by universities (and, therefore, with credit of externally-funded work going to the university and not to the organisation providing funding), it is not of the university interest to transfer individuals from short-term externally funded contracts to university paid, long-term posts. This is because:

  1.  All credit derived from the individuals' work goes to a university while there is none or minimal cost and responsibility for such individuals and their employment to the university;

  2.  There is no limit to a number of externally funded short-term contract staff as there is no obligation to provide any of such individuals with a subsequent university-funded post;

  3.  There is no obligation or interest to a university to ensure development of a full potential of such individuals, because a short-term contract staff is seen by the universities as a supportive staff that promotes/accelerates research of the university-paid individuals rather than as an intermediate stage of employment that, in principle, be replaced by a proper, university-paid post;

  4.  For the same reason as in (3) there is no proper career structure.

  As a consequent of the above, short-term contract staff is treated as servants rather than equal members of the university community. With no voice and constantly in a subsidiary role this jeopardises a proper development of the individual's own scientific independence, research and, consequently, career.

  A few individuals who do manage to break from this subsidiary role are seen as an immediate competition to those who provide a short-term contract(s) for them in the first place. Such situation usually results in a termination of short-term contract (ie the contract is not renewed) and the individual becomes unemployed, starts along the same "short-term contract path" somewhere else or seeks an alternative, university-independent employment or even leaves the country altogether.

  It should be pointed out that it is most unusual for an individual who was employed on a short-term contract in one university to be employed on a university-paid tenured post in another without going through the same short-term contract routine.


  Short-term contracts used as an alternative path of employment rather than a "probation time" are, therefore, a total waste of both a full potential of young, enthusiastic postgraduates and expertise and achievements of senior scientists employed on such contracts. Inevitably, this hampers progress of British science, as well as lowers quality of the higher education at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

  One does not have to mention a devastating effect of such a system on an individual's professional and, frequently, personal well being.

9 July 2002

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