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


Memorandum submitted by the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)

  The full report of the Geography RAE Panel (2002) drew attention to some of these issues. A comment was made on the high levels of staff mobility between departments in today's academic labour market and the significant number of fixed term posts reflecting the short-termism in Universities, no doubt aggravated by restricted funding and managerial strategies towards the RAE.

  We feel that the preponderant of short-term research contracts does matter and will become an increasingly important issue within the RAE-driven world. There are both positive and negative attributes to having short term contracts which we hope we have addressed below.

(a)  Why does the preponderance of short-term research contracts really matter?

  Short-term research contracts reduces research to a contract when it is far more than that; it pressurises the short-term employed as they need to look 12 months in advance for their next job; it therefore can jeopardise the project through lack of total commitment and changes in staff. Sometimes changes in staff are at the point at which it is impossible to continue. If this happens then either the project has to cease or the principal investigators have to take over to the detriment to all concerned.

(b)  What are the implications for researchers and their careers?

  Where staff are hoping to see research contracts as a way into an academic job they are not only faced with the prospect of several short term posts and the uncertainties that go with them but, increasingly, they are carrying big debts into posts that are poorly paid, especially in places like London. This does nothing to help create a flow of the brightest into university jobs and while uncertainty haunts many people in professional jobs today they are usually being paid much more than in the university sector.

  If the above is not bad enough, the terms and conditions under which these staff work are often pretty poor. Today low tender costs are a clear element in the award process of research funds. It is, therefore, not surprising to see many "under-funded" research projects creating stressed working conditions for all concerned. This under-funding has a number of consequences for research staff, quite separate from those affecting Principal Investigators (PI) and institutions. It undermines efforts to provide staff training in research and other skills, except where this is absolutely central to the research project itself, thereby not helping to "grow" the individual into becoming an adaptable and broadly-based researcher. This can reduce their future job opportunities, including their attractiveness to those who have lecturing jobs on offer. Moreover, for those who wish to go down the academic route, heavy workloads because of these conditions also limits their ability (in their spare time even) to publish papers from earlier work (eg their doctorates).

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

  Research contracts produces a situation as explained in (a) because "under-funded" projects can lead to researchers leaving projects soon after the analysis stage. This not only impacts on the efficiency of research conduct (ie much writing takes place after the official end of the project) but also reduces the opportunities for the researcher to get the appropriate credit at the writing stage, crucial if they want an academic job. Whether the contract researcher gets much credit (ie the IPR due them) through the writing stage (reports or papers) is very much a function of the working relationship between the PI and the researcher. Many PIs try to be helpful and share responsibility and credit, but there are no guarantees. These arguments have been discussed by the contract researchers themselves. The RAE Panel for Geography was sympathetic to these kinds of arguments which are also contained in the paper in AREA (33, pp 434-9) by Nicola Shelton et al. (2001) which discussed the "invisibility" of most such staff under the RAE rules, or at least how these rules were interpreted by departments. Contract staff often feel that others were getting the "credit" for much of the work they had done.

  Do researchers leave for these reasons? Inevitably some do but we feel that the real issue is whether they feel able/can progress up the career ladder ie the availability of jobs in departments where they want to work. The best geography departments still have plenty of applicants but here comes the "double bind", they need to demonstrate publications.

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

  This will vary given the nature of the institution. There are clearly institutions that could support a higher percentage of contract research staff than others. However, if we were asked to give a balance then between 25 per cent and 30 per cent contract to 75 to 70 per cent permanent research staff.

(e)  Has the Concordat and the Research Careers Initiative made any difference?

  From our experience, neither the Concordat nor the Research Careers Initiative have really worked because it was never funded! In the case of one five star geography department, they state "we have done what we can and after about 5-7 years, successful research officers who wish to stay largely in research will get a fraction of their salary (up to 50 per cent) paid from Funding Council sources to give them some greater security, if the department and institution can afford it. It is part of the department's policy of building and rewarding research capacity and in effect we can only do it because of our RAE success." We would doubt if many other geography departments can afford it because of the relatively limited pools of research funding available to bid for and the general risks to all parties.

10 June 2002

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