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


Memorandum submitted by The Royal Astronomical Society


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


  In favour of this arrangement means that the availability of short-term research workers provides flexibility and quick response to new research initiatives. Projects are often fixed term, and the skills and experience required may not easily be transferred to other projects. But the situation in countries which do not rely so much on short-term research contracts, is that their programmes are less efficient and overall provide less value for money. Additionally research council policy is to hire younger Postdocs in preference and to put pressure on the holders of rolling grants through the review process to do the same.

  Against this arrangement is what happens to those who have had short-term contracts for many years when there are no longer suitable projects on which to work? There may, in some institutes, be a feeling of being second class with respect to those colleagues who have permanent positions. This effect could be real or imagined, but either way it is damaging for those concerned.

  In theory one could make a long-term career supported on soft money, if there was a ready supply of positions and appropriate support. In practice however, there is insufficient soft money to ensure continuity in employment. It is unreasonable to expect highly trained and valuable people to accept a high risk of unemployment in their careers, especially when the financial rewards they receive when employed are so derisory. There needs to be a balance between numbers of short-term workers and permanent positions.

  Following a PhD, a research worker is well advised to obtain a short-term post-doctoral position prior to making the decision to take-up a permanent academic post. This short-term post should provide further training in transferable skills, etc, including teaching in HE institutes. If a committed individual can only continue his/her academic research via a number of consecutive short-term contracts, then the system becomes less defensible. In this case, the number of second and further short term contracts may need to be reduced.

  The proposed "Academic Fellowships" should only be available to those who have already had one (or more) short-term contract research fellowships. The Academic Fellowship (with probationary period) should lead on to a permanent position.


  What are the implications for researchers and their careers?


  Beyond a certain point in their career it is virtually impossible for a person who has been on a fixed term contract to successfully transfer to a permanent position in a university ie they are competing with younger/cheaper applicants for jobs, and also that panels will often prefer to opt for "future promise" over "experience and track record". The consequences are that many of the most productive and imaginative scientists move out of science and into other careers, simply to provide for themselves and their families a reasonable salary and level of security. This movement might be beneficial to the community at large, but it is also important for the country that the brightest and best scientists should have the opportunity to have a lifetime career in science. Those opportunities are simply too rare at present.


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


  Only for researchers up to a certain age, after this they are trapped because if they have specialised, they may find it difficult to find a job outside of a University/Institute. One real problem is the low salaries for both contract and junior permanent staff. This is making it very difficult to attract new people into university research, and to retain them for more than a few years.

  Any university head of department can point to many very talented people who have moved out of science because they can no longer put up with the uncertainty of short-term employment and the lack of opportunity to obtain longer-term positions; the very brightest are forced to change career when at their point of highest productivity and greatest imagination. The high international standing of UK university research is highly vulnerable to these losses. Although not directly relevant to the question posed, it is absolutely clear that a career in academia (permanent or contract) is becoming noticeably less attractive to bright graduate students.


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


  There are too many conflicting constraints to give a simple reply. Appropriate balances could be worked out for a given subject area under a given national employment situation.

  The main question is sustainability—who is to pay the salary of key research staff in between projects? There must be continuity, but the universities currently will not fund such staff, and the research councils will only fund contract staff who are working on specific projects. If the current system of fixed term contracts is retained, then the question of how to bridge key research staff from project to project, must be considered. In a sense this would be the half way house solution between going for permanent positions for all, and the current unsatisfactory situation.

  In the opinion of a young Postdoc. A short contact is good at the start of a career since it gives opportunities for new Postdoc to become established as a researcher. From the employer's point of view, a new Postdoc introduces fresh ideas into the group, gives the department a chance to get to know the Postdoc and to find out how capable he/she is away from their PhD supervisor as an independent researcher. After one short-term contract most Postdocs will have established themselves (or otherwise). They will be approaching 30 years of age, many will have found partners and perhaps have children and would not wish to move appointment every two to three years. So short-term contracts are NOT good for long-term careers.

  A short term contract involves settling-down time in new establishment, a period of productivity and time to look for new "contract". In three-year cycles this becomes very inefficient and there comes a point when a Postdoc, having completed several short-term contracts, is in competition with the new Postdocs. Employers choose the fresh young face because. "Why has the ageing researcher not been offered a permanent job by now?" He/she is now aged 40-45; do they now leave the field?

  Additionally women who have taken career breaks for family reasons find it very difficult to compete in the present structure of short-term contracts.


  Has the Concordat and the Research Careers Initiative made any difference?


  Absolutely none at all. Universities are under such severe financial pressures that the good intentions enshrined in the Concordat are simply worthless. There is no evidence to show that a single appeal to the Concordat has produced a useful result.


  How should policy move forward?


  There are two aspects.

  Firstly the problem cannot be addressed in isolation, but must be seen in the broader context of university and research council funding. Both types of institution are in serious financial difficulty. While this is the case, one cannot hope to attain a more equitable situation, and the haemorrhage of expensively-trained scientific talent on short-term support will continue. Postdoc pay is derisory and is a key factor in PhD graduates not continuing in academia in the UK. The relatively new factor here is student debt which, combined with low Postdoc salaries, is a major disincentive. A major review of higher education research and the support it receives through research councils is urgently required.

  Additionally while the above debate is interesting, a much more important question needs to be answered. Information needs to be disseminated about the impact of the EU Fixed Term Workers Directive due in October 2002. If it is interpreted in a certain way this could totally destroy the research fellowship system operated within the UK, and on which a large fraction of our research activity relies. Based on the committee work of one of our senior Fellows for PPARC across the UK, nobody appears to have any idea of how this is to be handled. It is now causing considerable uncertainty and concern amongst the research leaders and their contract staff. It is about time for the relevant bodies within the UK to recognise what is likely to result from these new EU regulations, and to explain the position to the research community.

24 June 2002

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