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


Memorandum submitted by Professor A D May and Dr S M Grant-Muller, Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds

  1.  This memorandum is submitted in response to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee's request for evidence for its Inquiry into Short Term Research Contracts in Science and Engineering. It is based on our own experience in managing research staff development in the Institute for Transport Studies. Because our arrangements differ from those elsewhere in the University of Leeds, we have decided to submit our own evidence, with the full support of the University.

  2.  The Institute for Transport Studies is the largest research group in transport in the UK, and one of the largest in Europe, and has obtained the highest grade in each of the 1992, 1996 and 2001 Research Assessment Exercises. We have a total of over 60 staff, of whom 45 are on temporary contracts. These include all but one of our 35 research staff. However, we have put considerable effort, over the last decade, into improving the security of employment of our research staff, by placing all who have been with us for over two years on rolling contracts, and by carrying out annual reviews of all staff to help them in the development of their careers. These arrangements, which are described more fully in the Annex, have enabled us to achieve very high levels of staff retention, and a core team of senior researchers who contribute much to the development of our research programme. At the same time we have maintained a healthy exchange of staff joining us from, and leaving us for, posts in academia, consultancy and government. We offer this evidence in the hope that others can benefit from our experience.

  3.  We address each of the Committee's questions in the following paragraphs. We then provide a set of recommendations for the Committee's consideration. We explain our arrangements more fully in an annex. We would be very willing to expand on these points in oral evidence if called upon to do so.

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

  The most common model is one in which a member of research staff is appointed to work on a specific research project, with a contract which ends when project funding ceases. This model has a number of disadvantages. It can take some time to find suitable recruits. There can be considerable financial costs in terms of advertising and assessing candidates and there may also be substantial delays in the start date of projects. It also leads to the possibility of compromising the timeliness of the research, particularly for shorter projects. Once recruited, staff will require training in specific research skills, but departments may be reluctant to provide generic training for temporary staff. As short-term contract staff would rarely have been involved in the development of the concept and methodology of the project, they have a lower sense of ownership of the research, with the implications that has for the project as a whole. During their time in the department, they may feel less inclined to become integrated into the general life of the department through a sense of just passing through. They are likely to spend the last few crucial months of the project seeking new employment, and are likely to have relatively little interest in further development of the line of research. It is not uncommon for research staff to seize an opportunity for employment elsewhere and leave the project before its completion. This is unsatisfactory for the researcher who may miss the opportunity to publish or disseminate and for the department who face the difficulties of finding suitable staff for a few months to bring the project to its conclusion. Overall, the current system represents the worst of all worlds, in that it involves significant expense in recruiting and training staff who frequently feel demoralised and undervalued, and often leave just at the point where they are becoming more productive.

  5.  Our own model of rolling contracts overcomes many of these problems. We have a pool of researchers whom we train, and can employ flexibly on a range of projects according to their skills and interests. They will be employed beyond the duration of the project, and can thus contribute fully to its completion. Moreover, they have a more immediate interest in the dissemination and further development of the research programme. As a result we now have a core team of some 13 research staff on RAII, and others aspiring to that level, all of whom generate research proposals and manage research projects in their own right. We actively encourage knowledge transfer and mentoring by more senior research staff to the benefit and support of those on more junior grades. There is still the disadvantage that research staff do not have as much job security as academic staff, and may consider that they are treated differently. We are conscious of this, and try to remove the boundaries between categories of staff where possible. We are also planning to make posts on RAII permanent.

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

  As noted above, research staff with purely fixed term contracts face an uncertain future, and are likely to be diverted from effective career planning by the quest for suitable employment. They may well also gain less experience from the individual research project as a result. Short-term contract staff are unlikely to be offered positions of responsibility that might otherwise broaden their experience. Faced with limited resources, some departments may not feel able to offer the same level of training, opportunities and investment in the careers of short-term staff that they offer permanent staff, despite the advances offered by the Concordat. After a series of short-term contracts, possibly in different universities or departments, the possibility exists that some contract staff will emerge with only a minimal level of broader personal development and not necessarily equipped for a future career outside academia. This is a concern as it is clear that there are far fewer traditional academic posts than there are contract research staff, and thus the majority must look for career paths elsewhere. It is therefore important that their skills are developed with a range of possible future employment in mind. We do this in the Institute in two ways, by making available a career path in research for those with aspirations to develop and lead high quality research programmes, and by maintaining strong links with the consultancy profession, which is the most common alternative source of employment for our staff. In support of both routes, staff are encouraged to obtain broader transferable skills, such as those in project management or developing proposals and tenders. The research career path enables progression through the research grades, while having opportunities for teaching and administration if the researcher wishes. It also permits transfer to the lecturer grades at any stage if considered appropriate. Many of our senior staff, including our current Director of Research, have progressed through this route.

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

  This is covered in part above. The future uncertainties caused through short-term contracts have without doubt an effect on the morale of staff and evidence on this has been collected and published over a number of years through the AUT. Not only does poor morale affect the decision of staff on whether to continue in academic life in any capacity, it affects other aspects of their lives too. Both male and female staff face difficult life-choices in terms of planning or expanding their family when employment is so insecure. Added to this, difficulties in securing mortgages and insurance experienced by some staff can be a final straw causing some to leave a research career for secure but less challenging employment elsewhere. Through our rolling contract arrangements in the Institute we have achieved a very high level of retention; even with our high number of research staff our total staff turnover rate is well under 10 per cent pa. Inevitably from time to time good researchers leave us for different career paths. While this can have detrimental impacts on specific research projects in the short term it is an accepted part of our process. We see ourselves as training researchers for careers with us or elsewhere, and those who leave us should take with them a good training in research together with a broader range of transferable skills.

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

  As part of this question, it may also be useful to reflect on what the balance between senior and junior research staff in Universities could most beneficially be. This is linked to an appropriate balance in contract and permanent staff and to the issue of career development for researchers as a whole. Researchers at Grade II and above have an academic maturity and range of broader skills that enable them to make substantial contributions to the life and future success of the Institution. We are currently aiming for a situation in which around 40 per cent of our staff, rather than the current 75 per cent, are on temporary contracts, with the majority of these being rolling rather than fixed term contracts. The latter will be limited to the junior grades and probationary periods on higher grades, and will be justified on the basis that those on these grades will be in the earlier stages of career development when they, and we, need to explore their appropriateness for a career in research. The main constraints in the past on moving to this balance have been financial uncertainty and inflexibility in reducing staff numbers in periods of financial difficulty. Both of these are now being overcome. A further consideration is the possibility that research staff may become less productive at a later stage in their careers, but that it will prove difficult to encourage them to change their role. This is a risk, but it is no greater a risk than with permanent academic or administrative staff, and effective staff development strategies should do much to minimise the risk.

9.  Have the Concordat and the Research Careers Initiative made any difference?

  The University of Leeds made a major input to the development of both, and its advice was based to a significant extent on good practice in the Institute. We welcome both as ways of disseminating good practice, and we have learnt something ourselves in enhancing our approach to training. It is very clear that some departments and universities have had to be reminded of their responsibilities to contract staff. The Concordat and Initiative have contributed usefully to this. However, we do have concerns that they both envisage research posts as remaining temporary.

10.  How should policy move forward?

  Whilst recognising the constraints of finance and other considerations, it is clear that policy can move forward both at the level of the Institution and within individual departments. We are clear as to the policy which we wish to adopt, and there are now few barriers to our doing so. We would like to see others being actively encouraged to adopt the use of rolling contracts, and to move towards a greater proportion of permanent staff. Indeed, we see an increasing case for breaking down the barriers between academic and research staff, and having one form of contract for all those who justify permanent posts. Such changes need, of course, to be coupled with effective staff development programmes at both departmental and University levels. The European Directive will to some extent have an impact on this. It is of crucial importance that it is used to facilitate such changes, rather than to impose a ban on all temporary contracts of more than a specified duration. The latter approach, which some universities used to their own detriment in the 1980s, would simply deter researchers who were taking longer to develop their careers from staying in the profession.

  11.  In the meantime, there is one particular area in which we would like to see further change. Much of our research is funded by EPSRC and, as will be clear from the above, much of it is generated by our more senior research staff. Yet EPSRC continues to refuse to allow them to be named on its grants if any part of their salary is met from EPSRC funds. We have argued for some time that experience in developing and managing research projects should be a key element in the career development of research staff, and have pressed EPSRC at least to permit time spent managing a project, and hence gaining this experience, to be funded by them. As yet we have been unable to obtain any change in their policy, and our research staff are left either having to seek support from elsewhere for their research, or to suffer the indignity of having to get a member of University funded staff to submit the proposal on their behalf.

12.  Recommendations

  Based on our experience, as outlined above, we offer the following recommendations.

    (i)  Universities, and leading research groups, need to establish a career route for those who will specialise in research conduct, management and leadership.

    (ii)  Each leading research group should assess its needs for staff numbers on this career route and at different grades within it.

    (iii)  Universities and departments should counsel all new appointees to research posts on the career options available to them and assist them in developing skills appropriate to their preferred options. Counselling should continue on at least an annual basis.

    (iv)  After a period of probation, junior research staff should be placed on rolling contracts, in which the University assumes a greater proportion of the risk that research income may not be maintained, and research staff appreciate that they can contribute to securing their own future.

    (v)  Where possible, more senior posts (on RAII and above) should be made permanent, while accepting that redeployment may be necessary if research income falls significantly.

    (vi)  All departments which aspire to, or have achieved, grades 5 and 5* in the Research Assessment Exercise should be expected to adopt approaches similar to those set out in (i) to (v) above.

    (vii)  Research Councils and Charities should recognise the greater benefit to be gained from increased employment security by moving from project to programme funding wherever possible.

    (viii)  EPSRC in particular should recognise that research grant generation and management are key elements of career development, and that it is appropriate for them to finance the time of research staff in managing grants which they themselves have secured.

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