Memorandum submitted by the Royal Academy
This paper draws on views submitted by over
50 of The Academy's Fellows, many of whom hold senior positions
in university engineering departments.
The Academy holds longstanding concerns about
the difficulties faced by British universities in recruiting and
retaining the best young talent for their research programmes.
In February 2002, The Academy published Doctoral level research
students in engineering: a national concern, a report examining
the shortage of high-quality British applicants for PhD positions
in engineering departments. The Academy also endorses the recommendations
of Sir Gareth Roberts' report to HM Treasury on the supply of
people with science, technology, engineering and mathematical
The issues covered by that report link closely
with many of those covered by the present inquiry, which considers
the situation in research at post-doctoral level. Failure to tackle
these problems would weaken the country's future capacity for
innovation and wealth-creation.
The Academy supports high-quality research by
promoting an exchange of personnel between academic institutions
and industry. Programmes such as The Academy's Industrial Secondment
Scheme provide opportunities for contact and exchange of ideas
between academics and industrialists. By keeping academics abreast
of the latest ideas, research techniques and challenges facing
industry, these schemes help to strengthen both teaching and research
in British universities.
1.1 The short answer is a resounding "yes".
It is not short-term contracts per se, but the gross imbalance
between the availability of short-term and long-term positions
that is causing many problems in our academic system. The Academy
is particularly concerned by the disillusionment of many of our
brightest researchers who are leaving engineering and science
because they are unable to progress beyond a series of short-term
positions or develop their own research programmes.
1.2 Benefits of short-term contractsif
1.2.1 Short-term contracts have an important
role to play in the British higher education system. It is healthy
for industry and academia to have a "transient core"
of young researchers looking to move on into industry or into
established academic posts. For young researchers looking to gain
experience after completing a doctorate, or in the case of a specific
project to be carried out over a relatively short timescale, a
short-term contract can be an ideal arrangement.
1.2.2 There is a strong argument that researchers
"burn out" or become stuck in a rut. A short-term contract
may be the most effective means of getting the best out of them
before they move on to supervise research or teach.
1.3 Misuse of short-term contracts
1.3.1 Regrettably, the use of short-term
contracts is not being restricted to these specific purposes for
which they are so well designed. Instead, short-term contracts,
which rarely extend beyond three years and can be less than two
years in duration, have become commonplace for all manner of research-based
academic positions funded by the Research Councils. This abuse
is now causing serious damage to academic engineering research.
1.4 Central problemlack of long-term
1.4.1 In an ideal world, newly-qualified
post-doctoral researchers would gain valuable experience on a
single short-term contract and then move to a permanent position.
In practice, permanent positions are in short supply and, in many
cases, the salaries compare poorly with those available in industry,
commerce and finance.
1.4.2 The inevitable result is that researchers
find themselves applying for a series of short-term positions
and then leaving academia when they find that such a position
is no longer compatible with either their personal commitments
or their career aspirations.
1.4.3 Key problems include the following:
Quality of researchers. The current
system succeeds in the rather limited objective of providing researchers
at a minimal cost, but it fails to ensure that our research system
is built around the best and most ambitious brains capable of
generating genuinely new ideas and new industries.
Overseas researchers. So unattractive
is the short-term research contract that very often the better
PhD students do not apply for it. Increasingly the trend in UK
universities has been for UK nationals to avoid short-term research,
leaving positions to be filled by candidates from overseasoften
of outstanding quality.
1.4.4 For applicants from the third world,
the salaries on offer at British universities are relatively attractive.
We are creating a research community, which is dominated by the
intellectual cream of other nations.
1.4.5 This approach gets the research done
but creates a new set of issues if the researcher does not wish
to return to his native country. Conversely, if the researcher
does return home at the end of the contract, the UK has "lost"
its investment in the researcher's knowledge and expertise.
1.4.6 With the vast majority of research
positions in UK universities now filled by overseas personnel,
there must be major concern that our engineering departments will
suffer a catastrophic decline over the next decade.
Less integrated into the Department.
As short-term contract staff are not involved in the development
of the concept and methodology of the research project, they have
a lesser sense of "ownership" of the work. They may
feel less inclined to become integrated into the general life
of the department because they feel that they are "just passing
Researchers on short-term contracts inevitably
feel an acute sense of insecurity. Despite being the engine room
of the UK's research activity, many are made to feel that they
are "second-class citizens".
Lack of continuity. Short-term contracts
lead to poor continuity on research programmes.
Given the preponderance of staff on short-term
contracts, many research programmes are condemned to repeated
interruption, upheaval and inefficiency. Since many of the most
important discoveries stem from research sustained over a long
period of time, it must be a particular concern that key research
staff change every three to four years because they have left
to pursue careers elsewhere or because the Research Councils are
unable to provide funding at suitable salary levels.
Bridging between contracts. Although
many Fellows drew attention to the difficulties inherent in attempting
to "bridge" between contracts, a small number have been
able to develop new funding techniques to overcome these difficulties.
For example, institutions that have built up financial reserves
have been able to use these funds to provide bridging finance
to support staff between contracts, thereby boosting the stability
of the team and the retention of staff.
The rolling contracts model provides a variation
on this theme. It involves maintaining a pool of researchers who
can be employed 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.
One successful "rolling contract"
model involves awarding grants for five years, with an option
to renew them after three. In cases where the renewal bid is unsuccessful,
the researcher still has two years of funding left which allows
time to resubmit or to seek support from elsewhere.
Although these bridging arrangements can be
ideal for supporting a researcher between a first and second short-term
contract, they should not be used as a means of keeping researchers
on a long series of short-term deals. As argued below ("Danger
of repeat short-term contracts") short-term contracts are
best used as a career stepping stone, not as a long-term career
Only 18 months of maximum effectiveness.
The typical duration of a short-term contract is three years,
but its very nature makes it difficult for the researcher to operate
with maximum effectiveness for the whole of the period. All too
often, the first year is spent settling in and the last six months
are spent worrying about a new position or the possibility of
contract renewal. This leaves only around 18 months for truly
productive work. It is not uncommon for research staff to leave
the project before its completion if they have a chance of employment
Less "blue sky" research.
The constant turnover of staff makes it difficult for departments
to plan for the long term and undermines their capacity to engage
in "blue sky" research. There are even examples of expensive
equipment lying unused as the key skills required to operate it
have evaporated with the loss of researchers from the department.
Danger of repeat short-term contracts.
The most serious problems arise with the continued use of short-term
contracts for the same individual. Career progression can become
very difficult for those who find themselves trapped on one short-term
deal after another and for this reason alone several Fellows warned
strongly about the damage done both to research and researchers
by the present over-reliance on repeated short-term contracts.
2.1 Distinguish between science and engineering
2.1.1 It is important to distinguish clearly
between the situation in science and in engineering. In the former,
progression from undergraduate to postgraduate to post-doctorate
to (perhaps) longer term research to (perhaps) an academic position
is very much the norm. This contrasts sharply with engineering,
where the career progression often involves a period away from
the University and a "permanent" research career is
not seen as the best option for a good quality person.
2.2 A career path in research?
2.2.1 Researchers can see for themselves
that Professors in engineering departments have not, in general,
travelled the research route to a chair. As one Fellow indicated,
his five star rated department has seen only one such appointment
in the last 30 years.
2.2.2 Researchers need to have a defined
career path with comparability of esteem to academics. Some Fellows
argued that it is possible to achieve this within current structures,
although it is clear that this is the exception to the rule.
2.2.3 For example, the Institute for Transport
Studies at the University of Leeds takes a twin-track approach,
offering a career path in research (with the possibility of transferring
to a lecturer grade at any stage) and also maintaining strong
links with the consultancy profession, which is the most common
alternative source of employment for its staff. In both cases,
staff are encouraged to develop transferable skills, such as project
2.3 Guard against repeat short-term contracts
2.3.1 In the long-term, a series of research
contracts is not an attractive option, either for the academic
institution or, indeed, for the researcher. A researcher with
a list of short-term contracts on his CV usually has poor career
prospects and is regarded as at risk of becoming "institutionalised".
The almost complete lack of senior and well-paid research posts
in universities means that career development opportunities are
2.3.2 In the vast majority of cases, it
would be unwise for a researcher to continue on short-term contracts
past the age of 32 because, by then, he or she is becoming too
expensive as a researcher and less attractive in the employment
market for permanent jobs.
2.3.3 After a series of short-term contracts,
possibly in different universities or departments, some contract
staff emerge with only a minimal level of broader personal development.
Given that there are far fewer traditional academic posts than
there are contract research staff, the majority must look for
career paths elsewhere. It is therefore important that their skills
are developed with future employment in mind.
3.1 Low salaries the key issue
3.1.1 There is no doubt that low salaries
throughout academia represent a much greater obstacle to recruiting
and retaining the best young talent than the system of short-term
3.1.2 Researchers are well aware that an
academic career will continue to leave them relatively poorly
paid, even if they progress to a chair. Whether on permanent contracts
or short-term deals, academics across the board are deeply concerned
by what they perceive to be a growing gap between their own salaries
and those available in the private sector.
3.1.3 Particularly in the South-East, the
salaries attached to short-term research contracts have simply
not kept pace with the cost of living. For many researchers, affording
the rent on reasonable accommodation presents major difficulties.
Securing a mortgage may be virtually impossible.
3.1.4 One Fellow cited the example of a
researcher in a buoyant area of engineering who was on a salary
of £35,000, including a special "market comparability
allowance", leaving for an industrial job at £70,000
plus car and allowance. Clearly there is a conflict between the
need to pay market comparable salaries and the national salary
scales for Research Assistants. Some universities attempt to tackle
the problem by promoting staff to higher grades, but this often
raises serious questions about whether the promotion criteria
have been properly satisfied.
3.2 Low salaries a deterrent to starting on
3.2.1 It is not simply that low salaries
encourage people to leave short-term research posts early or make
it difficult to recruit for such positions. In fact, the key difficulty
lies at a much earlier rung on the academic career laddergetting
people to embark on engineering PhD studies in the first place.
3.2.2 Many potentially excellent researchers
have already left academia for the private sector before reaching
the doctoral stage. There is a perception that it is the second
or third tiers of intellects that are prepared to stay in universities
to become engineering PhD students and then researchers.
3.3 Role of five-year fellowships
3.3.1 One of the most effective means of
sorting those with the drive to devise and follow research programmes
in their own right from those simply "doing what they are
told" is the five-year research fellowship, as offered by
The Academy's own post-doctoral research fellowship scheme (and
similar schemes operated by EPSRC and by the Royal Society). An
increase in the number of positions available through these schemes
would be very effective in encouraging the brightest and best
to pursue researchespecially if accompanied by some industrial
funding (perhaps in the form of an enhancement to the basic salary).
3.4 Frustration and uncertainty
3.4.1 In addition to purely financial concerns,
frustration and uncertainty are frequently cited as significant
factors in causing researchers on short-term contracts to abandon
3.4.2 Around 20 per cent leave through frustration
at the uncertainty of life on contracts, although dynamic and
cohesive research groups tend to have greater success in retaining
3.4.3 Short-term researchers inevitably
feel temporary. They expect to move on after one or two contracts,
so it should be no surprise that they do so. The low number of
long-term positions provides little incentive to remain in academia.
4.1 Current situation
4.1.1 Although the precise picture varies
from one institution to the next, it is clear that very few researchers
are employed on permanent contracts. At some universities, 100
per cent of researchers are on short-term deals. At others, the
figure is 75 or 80 per cent.
4.2 An ideal ratio
4.2.1 Most Fellows would be content to see
short-term contracts continue as the basis of employment for the
overwhelming majority of research staff. Although it is difficult
to find a consensus on the ideal ratio, a figure in the range
between 80 per cent short-term / 20 per cent long-term to 50 per
cent short-term / 50 per cent long-term would command a reasonable
amount of support.
4.2.2 Much as some in academia would like
to see a rather higher proportion of permanent staff, there are
good reasons for keeping this element relatively small in number.
Tenured staff can become intellectually lazy; there are many examples
of high-calibre tenured staff becoming unproductive well before
4.2.3 It is important not to rely entirely
on short-term staff as there are some areas of work, such as blue-sky
research, for which permanent staff are better suited. The dictates
of peer review requirements and other pressures associated with
short-term industrial applications tend to limit the innovative
capacity of short-term researchers. Hence we need to retain a
cadre of permanent researchers with the freedom to engage in innovative
work. They should be flexible enough to move from project to project
and develop a research career while the institution takes on grants
4.2.4 It should be noted that a preponderance
of short-term contracts may actually be a sign of an institution's
success. Institutions that win large numbers of research contracts
inevitably find themselves recruiting large numbers of researchers
to carry out the work. Most of these individuals will be employed
on short-term contracts. So the most research-active institutions
tend to employ the largest numbers of short-term researchers.
4.3 Limit number of short-term contracts
4.3.1 There is a broad consensus that researchers
should not be engaged on a long series of short-term contracts.
In many cases, one three-year contract should be sufficient for
the deficiencies of the three-year PhD to be overcome, for the
researcher to decide whether or not to continue in research and
for his or her potential to be established. After this, a normal
employment contract could be offered.
4.3.2 Although the above need not be a hard
and fast rule, a sensible guide would be that people should have
no more than two three-year contracts before being offered semi-permanent
employment orat the very leasta five-year contract.
Ideally, no one should be on a short-term contract beyond the
age of 32.
5.1 The majority view among Fellows of this
Academy is that the Concordat and Research Careers Initiative
have made some difference to the way in which researchers on short-term
contracts are treated within British academia. A number of Fellows
were completely unaware of the Concordat's existencefurther
evidence that it has failed to make the desired impact.
5.2 It would be wrong simply to blame this
disappointing state of affairs on inertia among academics. Many
academics wish to support the initiatives proposed in the Concordat
but are unable to do so because of a lack of resources or due
to the absence of a clear university-wide policy on research staff.
5.3 The Concordat has not made an impact
on one of the key difficulties surrounding contract researchersproviding
them with continuity of funding. Clearly EPSRC is not able to
meet this cost, which leaves industry as the only alternative
source. Industry is understandably reluctant to fund blue-sky
5.4 Although limited, the Concordat's impact
has brought some modest benefits. For example, many institutions
now recognise contract research staff as a valuable resource to
be nurtured with career and skill development programmes. Many
now recognise contract research staff on a par with academic staff
for many purposes.
5.5 The Concordat has also had some impact
in ensuring that departments do not exploit their staff. More
academic institutions now recognise the importance of developing
their employees' skillsets so that researchers do not end a contract
with only a narrow specialism to offer to a future employer.
6.1 Any reform must address the central
issue of research funding and the under-supply of permanent academic
posts. To tackle only the relatively narrow questions posed by
the present consultation would be to miss some very important
6.2 Nevertheless, there are some specific
measures that could be taken to improve the lot of the contract
researcher, and The Academy would hope that any revision of policy
would include at least some of the following points.
There is a clear need for more generous
funding for research. The Chancellor's speech on 10 June about
the central role that science and engineering research must play
in boosting Britain's future productivity sent out encouraging
signals, but must be backed up by clear commitments in the next
Comprehensive Spending Review. Extra funding should be earmarked
The Government must address the difficulties
faced by British universities in attracting UK nationals into
engineering research. More and more posts are filled by non-UK
staff, most of whom leave the UK eventually.
There is an argument that the short-term
nature of these contracts should be reflected in a higher rate
of remuneration than for tenured positions. This would be standard
practice in industrywhy not in academia?
There should be a substantial increase
in five year research fellowships sponsored by major engineering
companies, where the sponsoring company adds perhaps £10,000
to the salary on offer. The Academy already runs a small number
of schemes, such as its Senior Research Fellowships, which combine
Academy and industrial funding. The Academy would be pleased to
expand this programme, given the necessary resources. The Academy
is also looking to expand its Post-doctoral Research Fellowship
scheme, which is fully funded and targeted at the best young researchers.
Some Fellows favour concentrating
research funding on those universities with Research Assessment
Exercise ratings of four, five and five star. Lesser institutions
would lose out, but there is simply no need for every university
to be engaged in advanced research.
A variant of this proposal would
be a drastic cut-back in the number of engineering departments
and associated researchers, with those remaining paid much more.
This would transform the retention problem. Given that a good
researcher is many times more productive than an average one,
the impact on output would be minimal.
There is, however, a range of views
on the merits of decoupling research and teaching. The Academy
is currently considering undertaking a study of the future of
engineering research in the UK, which would investigate these
questions in more detail.
EPSRC should follow the example of
other research councils by allowing contract researchers to apply
for research contracts in their own names. Many researchers cite
this as the greatest barrier in developing their own careers.
EPSRC refuses to allow researchers to be named on its grants if
any part of their salary is met from EPSRC funds. Yet experience
in managing research projects should be a key element in the career
development of research staff. EPSRC should at least be prepared
to fund time spent managing a project and hence gaining experience
At present, many researchers have to get a member of the university-funded
staff to submit proposals to EPSRC on their behalf.