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


Memorandum submitted by PdOC, Cambridge University


  1.1  Cambridge University has 3,000[42] contract researchers, the highest number of any university in the country[43]. It has more than twice as many contract researchers as staff in permanent positions[44] 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 credited.

  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 .

  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[45]. 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 the university.


  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[46] 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 and neglect"[47].

  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[48]. 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 research population.

  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[49]. 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[50].

  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[51]. 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 from research.

  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 students.

  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 detailed below.

  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[52]. 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 researchers.

  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 group.

  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[53]. In Cambridge, after 7-8 years undergraduate and post-graduate training, a first-time 25-year-old post-doc is paid just over £17,500[54]. 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[55], 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 institutions?

  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[56], 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) for CRS.

  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 of either!

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 6.2).

  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 available.

  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 provision.

  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.

  8.7  Salaries

  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

43   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

44   Reporter, Special No 8, vol CXXXI, p38, 2000 Back

45   Data from Cambridge University Personnel Division Back

46   The population of CRS has doubled every decade since 1970 (Policy Forum on Contract Research Staff, Institute of Physics, 2000) Back

47   Speech by the Rt Hon. Tony Blair MP, delivered at the Royal Society, 23 May 2002. Back

48   Peter Raymond, UMIST Back

49   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 fellowship. Back

50   Nature, (1999) 397, 640-641. Back

51   CROS survey results (2002). Back

52   CROS (2002) Back

53   Robert's Review (2002) Back

54   Salary scales for unestablished research workers from March 2002, Cambridge University Research Services Division. Back

55   As recognised by the BBSRC in the form of increased stipends for Ph.D. students. Back

56   Policy Forum on Contract Research Staff, Institute of Physics, (2000) Back

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