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


APPENDIX 32

Supplementary memorandum submitted by Research Councils UK (RCUK)

1.  Four Councils employ research staff directly in their own institutes and facilities. What are these Councils doing to minimise the use of fixed-term contracts?

MRC

  As stated in the RCUK response to the inquiry, the Research Councils believe that the employment of contract research staff and the concept of early career mobility are essential components of public funding of leading edge creative science. Having a high proportion of such staff can be an issue. The MRC, as an employer, has therefore limited its use of fixed term contracts to post doctoral researchers at early stages in their careers, historically allowing individuals to be funded through short-term contracts for no more than six years. These posts are treated as training posts and all MRC employed post-doctoral researchers receive training in both core scientific skills as well as generic transferable skills. The majority of all other MRC employees working in its Institutes and Units are placed on open-ended contracts at the end of probationary periods. In 1996 MRC introduced a tenure track scheme for some postdoctoral researchers in order to improve career development opportunities for this category of staff. In line with the EU Directive on Fixed Term Contracts (FTCs), MRC will focus the use of fixed-term contracts to three-year career establishment/trainee appointments for new postdoctoral researchers.

CCLRC

  CCLRC currently makes very limited use of fixed-term contracts for researchers, precisely because it are already considering carefully at the outset whether a permanent appointment can be made. Only where it is judged that there is a serious risk the CCLRC will not have work for the person at the end of the fixed-term does it offer a fixed-term contract. This tends to be the case where the work is of a quite specific nature and is linked to specific and time-limited funding. Even then, CCLRC will consider whether there is a reasonable prospect that other funded work will have been secured by the end of the contract, and where it is judged that there is a reasonable prospect, it will offer a permanent contract.

BBSRC

  BBSRC currently employs some 1,700 research and research support staff, just over half of whom are currently on FTCs.

  Guidance was issued in May 2002, advising Institutes to phase out FTCs except for the following circumstances allowed by the Fixed-term Contract Regulations:

    —  a temporary appointment of less than one year, where there is little or no prospect of a renewal or extension;

    —  career-track contracts (where these are used);

    —  cover for career breaks, maternity, sick absence or training cover;

    —  postdoctoral training schemes (where these are used); and

    —  approved Government or EU training schemes (eg Modern Apprenticeships and Marie Curie Fellowships).

  Subject to the exceptions listed above, all BBSRC-sponsored institutes have already announced that they will not be using FTCs in the future. Existing FTCs are being reviewed, and some staff B notably in science support areas B are being transferred to indefinite contracts. However, the cost of transferring all existing FTC staff to indefinite appointments is prohibitive and existing redundancy compensation waiver clauses will be applied unless further funding can be identified or suitable redeployment opportunities arise.

  The BBSRC Redeployment and Redundancy procedures have been revised, with the full agreement of the Trade Unions, to facilitate consultation (with both FTC staff and Trade Unions) in a redundancy situation and to ensure that all redeployment opportunities are identified and investigated. Guidance on redundancy selection criteria has been improved to ensure that FTC staff are not indirectly discriminated against in a redundancy situation. Institute Human Resource managers have received coaching in the new procedures.

  In the longer term, Institutes will be expected to ensure that training and re-skilling in technical, generic and transferable skills is optimised in order to encourage redeployment of research staff when funding ceases or requirements for specialist expertise diminish. It is also envisaged that applications for funding will increasingly be framed around the knowledge and skills of existing postdoctoral research staff.

NERC

  NERC recently organised a full day seminar involving all Research Councils, OST, HEFCE and some Universities to consider the implications of both recent legislation and the Roberts report. One outcome of this has been a revised NERC policy on the use of FTCs.

  The vast majority of staff appointed on a fixed-term basis in NERC have historically been scientific research staff. The new policy gives the strongest possible steer that unless there are genuine, short-term business requirements in appointing staff on a fixed-term basis, then individuals should be appointed to permanent contracts. Although the policy takes account of the new legislation in this area (ie The Fixed Term Employees [Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment] Regulations 2002), the Roberts Review has also influenced NERC's thinking in terms of how best to manage and develop these staff so that they can play a more flexible role in NERC's future but also to enable them to make future contributions to the UK science and technology base more generally.

  This policy builds on work NERC has carried out over the last three or so years since the EU Regulations first came out, through which NERC has encouraged its Scientific Directors to reconsider their use of FTCs as a business tool. This has been reflected by a drop in the use of FTCs from 23 per cent of staff in March 1999 to 6 per cent in August 2002.

  NERC is now addressing some of the issues which arise from a reduced use of FTCs in its laboratories. These include the need for better performance management, the requirement to build on existing work on career development, and the need to find other ways of ensuring that its science receives the revitalisation offered by regular injections of "new blood".

2.  What actions have the Councils taken to improve the conditions and security of contract researchers funded under research council grants? What features of research council grants enable universities to take a more long-term view of researcher employment?

  Employers of research staff, not funders of research, are responsible for their management and their terms and conditions of employment. All of the councils are committed to their funding policies being in accordance with the principles laid down in the 1996 Concordat on Contract Research Staff, which recognises the need for more attention to be given to the career development and training of research staff, and encourage the recipients of their funding to implement the Concordat's requirements.

  In terms of salary costs, the councils allow grant applicants to seek funds to meet the higher costs of a more experienced researcher where the research project requires it. In many cases where this occurs the research officer is named on the application and the councils would normally meet the salary level requested unless the project clearly requires a lower level of expertise.

  The MRC and ESRC allow non established members of staff to apply for grants in their own right and to request payment of their salaries on a research award. NERC intends to introduce such provision next year and is currently working on the detail of how this will be implemented. The other councils do not currently permit this. Each council has considered this issue carefully in the context of its own strategy, the nature of the research it supports and the size and nature of its particular research community. The reasons for not permitting applicants to request their salary include a view that applicants for grants need to have reached a demonstrable level of competence in their research careers; that other schemes such as fellowships offer funding opportunities for new researchers wishing to pursue a career in academia; and, that the volume of applications would be such that overall success rates would become unacceptably low.

  All of the councils operate fellowship schemes offering support at different stages of a researcher's career. All councils provide fellowship opportunities for new researchers seeking a career in academia.

  All councils (except CCLRC) offer awards of varying duration through their responsive grants schemes normally up to a maximum of five years. Over half of the MRC's support for grants is in the form of five-year grants, most of which are renewable. PPARC funds a number of four year rolling grants, which are designed to enable key university groups to plan and pursue a co-ordinated programme of research over a longer timeframe. A pilot is being introduced this year by EPSRC whereby groups that continually have a large portfolio of (typically three year) research grants will have these consolidated into a single grant of typically five years duration. One consequence of this will be to enable universities to give greater certainty of employment to individual researchers within such a group. Some councils also provide targeted longer term funding, for example the ESRC supports research centres for a maximum of 15 years.

  In terms of other specific initiatives, the following are examples of action taken recently to promote good practice:

  The EPSRC has extended the principle of the Research Councils' Graduate Schools programme to contract research staff and is producing a career development training resources pack for use by universities, which it intends to make freely available to the university sector in Autumn 2002.

  In terms of career mobility and knowledge transfer, it is also important to encourage and facilitate the movement of trained researchers into industry and other sectors. One example of this is EPSRC's Research Assistants Industry Secondment scheme (RAIS). RAIS provides a fourth year of support for post-doctoral research assistants working on collaborative research projects, to spend this year in the collaborating company, or within spin out companies, transferring the technology developed in the previous three years in academia.

3.  What are the research councils' views on whether funders should include redundancy payments in grant applications?

  The councils regard the university as the employer and as such the university is responsible for staff contracts of employment and for redundancy or other compensatory payments which may arise. The support of research in universities has its roots in the dual support funding arrangements for research in universities. Whilst the boundaries of those arrangements shifted in 1991-92 so that Research Councils undertook to fund the full direct costs of grants and provide a contribution to departmental overheads, it did not change the role of universities as employers of researchers funded through grants.

  Furthermore, the councils would not wish to allow for provision such that redundancy would be encouraged as this could be detrimental to the development of long-term employment strategies for research staff in HEIs. The councils would instead wish to encourage good management practices such that the need to meet redundancy costs becomes exceptional.

4.  Do the councils have any other comments on the evidence submitted?

  Regrettably in the time available it has not been possible to produce a single RCUK response to the evidence submitted.

October 2002



 
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