Memorandum submitted by PdOC, Cambridge
1. A BRIEF INTRODUCTION
1.1 Cambridge University has 3,000
contract researchers, the highest number of any university in
It has more than twice as many contract researchers as staff in
and this ratio is much larger in many science departments than
it is in the university as a whole. Contract staff therefore undertake
the majority of the research for which Cambridge University is
1.2 The majority of short-term research
contracts are held by individuals, known as post-docs who hold
a Ph.D. These contracts typically last for a period of less than
three years and are funded by Research Council grants for specific
research projects. Responsibility for management of both the project
and contract researchers lies ultimately with the Principal Investigator,
the permanent researcher who submitted the project proposal. In
addition to research, a contract researcher may also be asked
to contribute to the teaching and research group management commitments
of the Principal Investigator. In almost all science fields, a
scientist must have a significant publication record before they
will be considered for any research position, permanent or temporary.
A permanent post is a prerequisite for independent research. To
achieve such a record commonly requires several research contracts.
1.3 PdOC was set up by a group of Cambridge
University post-docs a year ago on behalf of post-doctoral contract
research staff (CRS) that work in the university. Its aims are
to improve the treatment of this population by facilitating access
to information, networking and putting pressure on the university,
its departments and colleges. Its website can be found at www.postdocsofcambridge.org
1.4 PdOC is run entirely by post-docs on
a voluntary basis. It receives no financial backing from the university
and every post-doctoral contract researcher at Cambridge is automatically
a member and can access all the information available on our website.
1.5 Because of short-term contracts the
turnover of contract researchers at Cambridge is extremely high;
40 per cent of the contract research staff population employed
by Cambridge University in 2001 were appointed that year.
Because of this the population of those able and willing to devote
their time to PdOC changes rapidly. As an example, none of those
involved in setting up PdOC 12 months ago are still on the committee;
all have either left Cambridge or, as a result of work pressure,
have had to withdraw their active participation. In practice any
contract researcher who wishes to can be a committee member and
can take on roles as they become available.
1.6 The authors of this letter would therefore
like to make it clear to the Science and Technology Committee
that they have no mandate to speak on behalf of the post-docs
at Cambridge University. What they do have is personal experience
of contract research and the ability to consult with other post-doctoral
contract researchers across the breadth of science and engineering.
A draft of this memorandum was circulated to our mailing list
of post-docs and input from all areas of the university's science
and engineering departments was sought before submitting it to
your inquiry on short-term research contracts. The fact that Cambridge
has no official channel through which contract researchers can
express their views reflects the status of this community within
2.1 This memorandum is structured following
the specific questions asked in the Press Notice of 9 May 2002
3. Does the preponderance of short-term research
contracts really matter? Why?
3.1 Yes it matters. Arguably it is the increasing
number of CRS in science that has kept British science internationally
competitive. Industry relies on out-sourcing R&D to universities,
because companies are unable to recruit and train the constant
stream of new researchers needed to maintain cutting edge research.
3.2 The large and growing
number of short-term research contracts in science and engineering
are of critical importance because arguably, it is this population's
contribution that has kept British science internationally competitive
despite "a lengthy and disastrous period of underfunding
3.3 Industry is increasingly out-sourcing
R&D to universities, because companies are unable to recruit
and train the constant stream of new researchers needed to maintain
cutting edge research.
The vast majority of contract researchers that are flooding into
British universities are young, energetic, enthusiastic, flexible
and mobile. All of these qualities are key ingredients in the
search for innovative ideas and new techniques, their application
and development. One interpretation of the preponderance of the
low percentages of permanent research staff amongst the top 10
RAE-scoring universities (Figure 1) is that the research performance
of universities is heavily dependent on the size of its contract
3.5 The implications for a decrease in research
activity and quality are critical for UK's relationship with multinational
companies. If research is perceived to be decreasing in quality,
there will be fewer top quality research groups for companies
to establish links with and the industry will then move to the
USA, just as for example Glaxo SmithKline has already done.
4. What are the implications for researchers
and their careers?
4.1 Although contract researchers play a
key role in sustaining the UK's bid for international competitiveness,
they hold a lowly place in the current academic structure and
management. Contract research staff have little influence over
science strategy at any level, their day-to-day tasks or their
own careers. We suggest that increasing the level of control unestablished
researchers have over their science and their careers would benefit
not only this population, but also the scientific output of academia
as a whole. Given below are series of examples describing the
current system of academic structure and management and its effect
on contract research staff and their scientific output.
4.2 The majority of CRS are employed by
universities on temporary contracts that relate to specific research
projects funded by Research Council grants. The principal investigator
(PI) on such grants is the person chiefly responsible for the
science, its management and any contract staff paid from the grant.
The PI is also the person who receives credit both for the funding
brought into the department and the science in the proposal.
4.3 Many Research Councils (eg NERC, EPSRC,
BBSRC) and funding agencies (eg Leverhulme) specify that the principal
investigator on research grants must be a permanent member of
the academic staff of the university or research institution.
This eligibility restriction ensures preferential support for
the research of those in established positions over those on temporary
contracts irrespective of the quality of science.
4.4 By preventing contract researchers from
being PIs on grant applications, the Research Councils force a
number of unwelcome choices on CRS. If they have a research idea
they wish to submit for funding, they may do so only by securing
the signature of a permanent academic. In doing this they lose
both the responsibility for the management of the science should
it be funded and the credit for the ideas that underpin the proposal.
Unsurprisingly, many contract researchers are unwilling to submit
their ideas to funding rounds where they cannot claim credit for
them. Others willing to try this route may be unable to find a
"tame" permanent academic who will agree to be a PI.
4.5 In this way the current funding framework
bars full, independent, responsible participation of contract
research staff in cutting-edge science. At best, the system in
place funds established researchers rather than the best science.
At worst it frustrates innovation from the population that historically
has produced many of the major scientific break-throughs.
4.6 This funding system prevents contract
research scientists finding their own salaries. The result is
enforced dependence on principal investigators, if not directly
for the next research job, at least for a reference with which
to get another contract. A successful career in research is therefore
at least partially reliant on the attitude of the principal investigator
towards contract researchers and their aptitude for good management,
rather than any particular talent for research in the contract
researcher. Because of their dependence, there is little room
for contract researchers to demand better treatment than by chance
happens to come their way. A recent survey of young research workers
in the UK found that more than 60 per cent felt they were not
given full credit for the work they do.
4.7 Many principal investigators and department
heads fail to prioritise responsibility for contract researchers.
This may be because the contribution contract research staff make
to departmental research is not explicitly evaluated in reviews
such as the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). It may also result
from the fact that contract researchers have little leverage within
the university or nationally. Whatever the reason, the end result
is often poor management of contract research staff.
4.8 For example, the appraisal scheme set
up and stated in the Cambridge University staff handbook has proved
ineffective and in many departments, is not implemented at all.
A system of career monitoring and advancement is essential to
ensure that contract researchers get the opportunities required
to develop their research potential.
4.9 Publication of research in reputable
scientific journals is the only mechanism by which success both
of the post-doc and their PI is currently measured. This has a
number of impacts both on the career paths of contract researchers
and the science they undertake.
4.10 For example, post-docs are rarely encouraged
by their PIs to take up training opportunities that relate to
career development rather than the specific project on which they
are working, since many feel that they cannot spare the time away
4.11 Many post-docs shoulder much of the
burden of maintaining and running research groups particularly
those made up predominantly of graduate students with a scattering
of first time post-docs on behalf of their PIs. This detracts
from the time available for contractor to do research and publish.
In addition, many CRS receive no credit for supervising graduate
4.12 Driven by the need to publish in order
to stay employed, some contract researchers select research projects
on the basis of the likelihood of quickly publishable results
rather than projects which may be very valuable in the longer
term. This means that there is in effect a brain-drain from risky
to safe research areas. One result is that PIs are experiencing
increasing difficulty recruiting post-docs with sufficient experience
to undertake ambitious projects
5. Is there evidence that the present situation
causes good researchers to leave?
5.1 The PdOC organisation does not have
access to the statistics held by the university giving the reasons
for the departure of individual contract researchers. We hope
that the committee will obtain this information from other sources.
Discussion amongst the contract research community in Cambridge
however, provides strong anecdotal evidence that good researchers
are indeed leaving; some to relevant industrial research, but
at least as many to academic jobs in non-EU countries or to unrelated
jobs. Some of the reasons people give for leaving academia are
5.2 The career structure available in academia
is focused on those who aspire to permanent university positions.
The overwhelming majority of these positions are lectureships;
that is established posts that combine being a research leader
with teaching responsibilities. However, only 10 per cent of the
contract researchers surveyed earlier this year wish to teach.
This may be a response to the lack of appreciation shown to those
who undertake undergraduate teaching, permanent or unestablished.
There is no doubt however that contract research staff are deterred
from aspiring to long-term careers in academia by the lack of
diversity in the career paths available. A structure which included
independent teaching and research-tracks, might retain more talented
5.3 Research Council reluctance to fund
older post-docs means that some researchers, even if they wanted
to remain in academia, are unable to find research contracts once
they have accumulated significant research experience. For a researcher
wishing to remain exclusively in research therefore, the career
prospects are currently so poor, that many choose to jump out
of the academic ship before they are pushed. Quite apart from
the career implications for the researcher, the removal of experience
has an adverse impact on continuity within the remaining research
5.4 Salary is obviously a contentious issue
to many researchers, contract or otherwise. Low pay is one of
the reasons given by many post-graduates for not continuing in
academia, particularly in the light of increasing student debt.
In Cambridge, after 7-8 years undergraduate and post-graduate
training, a first-time 25-year-old post-doc is paid just over
On this salary they are unable to rent their own flat, let-alone
buy property, and have to remain living in shared accommodation.
Such conditions together with the long working hours required,
prohibit those with a family to support from remaining in academia.
Salaries must be set at a level that allows contract research
staff to stop living like students.
5.5 In addition, the uncertainty inherent
in short-term contracts is exacerbated by salaries that cannot
tide people over between contracts or easily fund re-locations
within the country. Because of this, many non-British post-docs
return to their native countries at this juncture taking with
them the expertise they have gained here.
5.6 The universities' pension scheme, USS
also presents problems for contract researchers. It is not currently
permissible to contribute to USS pensions when not employed by
the university. Researchers between contracts are therefore unable
to maintain their pension provision and their final pension is
reduced as a result.
5.7 However, for contract researchers at
least, there is a danger of getting the low pay issue out of perspective.
As those setting pay scales have known for decades, the core of
the profession is curiosity driven and does science for love,
not money. Many contract researchers, although they would appreciate
a higher salary, do not consider their level of pay their principle
complaint. A lack of control over their work, a lack of ownership
of the system in which they work at research group, department,
institution and national level is a bigger deterrent for many
for remaining in academic research. In this context of being undervalued
however, many contract researchers find that their low pay level
rankles. They feel it is concrete evidence that their contribution
is not appreciated.
5.8 Mechanisms facilitating re-entry into
academic research after a break are conspicuously absent. Research
employment commonly requires recent publications. Hence, many
of those who have taken a break from academia either to work in
industry or to have a family irrespective of their proven research
talent are prevented from returning.
6. What would be the right balance between
contract and permanent research staff in universities and research
6.1 The contract researchers consulted on
this issue expressed a range of views. All agreed however, that
the sharp demarcation between permanent and contract staff in
terms of their treatment and work conditions needs to be blurred.
6.2 Some of us take the view that there
is no place for researchers on permanent contracts in academia.
The theoretical abolition of tenure has, in practice, had negligible
impact on academia, which is just as stagnant as it has ever been.
The alternative is longer-term (5-10 year) rolling-contracts for
all researchers with probationary shorter-term contracts for initial
post-doctoral years. As a proposition for funding the best scientific
ideas, this suggestion is scarcely revolutionary. However, it
is never mentioned in any of the strategic plans put forward for
academia or indeed CRS. Why? Because it would be devastatingly
unpopular with those now holding permanent contracts. However,
the committee should bear in mind that half the research active
population in the UK has never had a permanent contract. That
population, if it follows the trend of the last three decades,
is set to grow still further. How long will academia be able to
maintain a system that supports a minority population to the detriment
of the majority and scientific output?
6.3 Others feel that teaching and continuity
of research experience both require an element of permanence in
the staff structure. However, the sharp demarcation between permanent
and CRS should be blurred. In other words there should be an element
of contract funding for permanent staff and more stability (in
the form of longer term contracts for more experience and/or responsibility)
6.4 In addition, the teaching role of both
contract research staff and those in permanent lectureships should
be formally encouraged, recognised and rewarded.
7. Has the Concordat and the Research Careers
Initiative made any difference?
7.1 Neither the Concordat nor the RCI have
made nearly as much difference as they should have done because
they failed both to recognise the positive aspects of contract
research and to empower the contract research population.
7.2 The text produced by both the Concordat
and the Research Careers Initiative (RCI) demonstrate that these
organisations perceived the growing number of contract research
staff to be a problem. This perception is flawed. Contract research
is only a problem in the context of a system that advocates permanent
research jobs as the "Holy Grail" of academic achievement.
7.3 They also failed to empower contract
researchers and as a result of the funding system have left them
heavily dependent on principal investigators for career development.
7.4 There is little incentive for university
management to nurture contract researchers. In particular, the
funding climate discourages employment of older and more experienced
CRS. This leads to the impression that CRS are disposable.
7.5 It seems probable that one of the reasons
that the impact of both the Concordat and RCI has fallen short
of expectation is that neither of them included CRS at the level
of strategic planning. For example, the RCI's senior committee
comprises director generals, chief executives and vice chancellors
none of whom have recent post-doctoral experience.
7.6 It is not clear at whom the publicity
for the Concordat and RCI has been aimed. It clearly was not aimed
at the contract research population since most CRS are unaware
8. How should policy move forward?
8.1 Restructuring of all academic research
staff, not just contract researchers
The current structure of academia, far from
recognising the importance of CRS, disenfranchises them. It is
a relic system set up at a time when all research staff in universities
had tenure and unsurprisingly it benefits permanent staff to the
detriment of temporary researchers. In order to ensure that the
UK remains internationally competitive in research, the entire
academic career structure needs a major overhaul. Temporary research
contracts are an essential component of successful research. They
provide a mechanism for innovation, cross-fertilisation of ideas,
movement of individuals between departments within academia and
between academia and industry.
8.1.2 Some of us feel that to maximise the
benefits science and technology can draw from research contracts,
permanent academic research positions need to be abolished and
replaced with 5-10 year rolling research contracts for all (see
8.1.3 Others feel that (following 6.3) a
part of permanent staff salary (or salary increment) should be
funded by research contract
8.1.4 There should be more diversity of
positions within the current academic hierarchy including positions
of greater stability for excellent research scientists at all
levels. This should enable those who do not aspire to be research
leaders or university teachers to remain in academic research.
8.2 RAE restructured to encourage universities
to treat CRS better
If CRS input both in terms of numbers and publications
was explicitly stated in the RAE this would force recognition
of the contribution made by contract researchers to their department's
research rating. It should result in a fairer distribution of
the credit for research activity and would encourage universities
to take a more nurturing attitude towards all research staff.
8.3 A level playing field for all researchers
in terms of access to grant income and facilities
Only by allowing all research active staff to
apply for grants will Research Councils make some headway towards
claiming that they fund the best research. Allowing contract researches
to apply for research funds to cover their own salary would significantly
improve the independence of this population. Access to research
facilities to carry out the research funded must also be made
8.4 Career monitoring and development
A system that monitors career development is
an essential component of ensuring that the contract research
population fulfils its research potential and remain in academia.
Universities need not only to provide training, but also to encourage
researchers, permanent and temporary, to take advantage of the
8.5 Career breaks and job-sharing
In order to improve recruitment and retention
of talented researchers, mechanisms facilitating re-entry into
a research environment following a career break or period of alternative
employment need to be implemented. One possible way of achieving
this might be for Research Councils to fund six-month refresher
research degrees/diplomas. In addition, universities need to acknowledge
the long working hours required for research and its incompatibility
with family responsibilities. Making job-sharing a more acceptable
practise in academia is one route forward in this area.
8.6 Active participation of contract
researchers at every level in both research and strategy
There is currently no mechanism by which contract
research staff can gain control or ownership of any part of the
academic system. Because they are not eligible to apply for research
funding, they are unable to fund their own salary; they therefore
have limited control over their science. Few departments include
them in strategic planning and Cambridge has yet to give contract
researchers any role in university governance. They are not even
represented on the national committees like the RCI set up to
identify good practice in the career management and development
of CRS. This must change if we are to avoid loosing not only those
talented scientists who are deterred by low pay, but also those
whose self-esteem is unable to accept the powerlessness that the
current academic system imposes on them.
These must be increased in the light of student
debt and the level of training and qualification required to undertake
post-doctoral research. In addition, expansion of the London weighting
system for other areas with high living costs should be considered.
Salaries should be linked to experience not age and Research Councils
should not discourage the employment of senior contract researchers.
8.8 Roll-over contracts
More extensive use of a system of roll-over
contracts to help retain contract staff between contracts. This
would also facilitate the completion of research projects that
have unavoidably run over time.
8.9 Other disciplines
Much of the above evidence applies equally to
the social sciences and humanities as well as science and engineering.
Any policy changes should be inclusive.
18 June 2002
42 More than 2,000 are employed directly by the university
(Cambridge University Personnel Division); the remainder have
their salaries paid by colleges or companies linked to departments.
All are members of Cambridge University. Back
Deduced from data published by Times Higher Education Supplement
(THES), May 2002, from tables compiled by Mayfield University
Consultants ([email protected]), published 10th May 2002
and Research Assessment Exercise 2001 listings, published in THES,
May 2002. Back
Reporter, Special No 8, vol CXXXI, p38, 2000 Back
Data from Cambridge University Personnel Division Back
The population of CRS has doubled every decade since 1970 (Policy
Forum on Contract Research Staff, Institute of Physics, 2000) Back
Speech by the Rt Hon. Tony Blair MP, delivered at the Royal Society,
23 May 2002. Back
Peter Raymond, UMIST Back
An exceptional case is made for contract researchers on longer-term
prestigious fellowships such as those awarded by the Royal Society.
Fellowship holders are permitted to be PIs on small grants providing
the duration of the grant is not longer than the tenure of the
Nature, (1999) 397, 640-641. Back
CROS survey results (2002). Back
CROS (2002) Back
Robert's Review (2002) Back
Salary scales for unestablished research workers from March 2002,
Cambridge University Research Services Division. Back
As recognised by the BBSRC in the form of increased stipends
for Ph.D. students. Back
Policy Forum on Contract Research Staff, Institute of Physics,