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

Annex 2


In my view

By Dr Rachel Flecker

  Of the many people involved in trying to improve conditions for contract research staff (CRS), contract researchers themselves are conspicuously absent. Should we, Royal Society post-docs, be filling this gap?

  The CRS population has grown rapidly and at 30-40,000[57] it is now comparable in size to the research population holding permanent contracts. A plethora of recent articles, reports, concordats, statements and surveys all agree that changes to the structure of our research institutions and their management have not kept pace with this dramatic shift in demographics. Hence, despite the fact that in science departments CRS commonly out-number their colleagues in established positions, many have no role in departmental or institutional decision-making even over issues directly affecting their own working conditions.

  The same lack of representation occurs at national level where many of the committees entrusted with formulating future strategy in this area are void of members on fixed-term contracts. The Research Careers Initiative, for instance is a committee that identifies good practice in the career management and development of CRS, yet its senior panel includes no one with recent post-doctoral experience. In my own university, the CRS Working Group met for over a year before appointing two post-doc members.

  These omissions do not imply a policy of deliberate exclusion. After all contract staff are consulted, most often through surveys. Regrettably one of the weaknesses of questionnaires is that they limit the participants' input to the information requested. New, timely or unexpected contributions to the debate are much more likely to result from having CRS as active committee members.

  One barrier to including CRS in committee activity and policy-making is their inherently short-term contracts. This problem is not, in the longer term, insurmountable. The CRS Working Group in Cambridge was devoid of contract staff membership only while there was not postdoctoral organisation in the University able to furnish it with willing committee members. These members change as frequently as their contracts so that continuity is supplied by the organisation not the individual. Fledgling post-doc organisations do now exist in various institutions across the country, but until they are well established, contract researchers will remain a large, vulnerable population without a voice.

  As Royal Society-funded contract researchers we are less vulnerable than most of our peers. We have longer contracts and in many departments are given a status that allows us access to strategic planning for the future and an opportunity to be heard. Clearly than we Royal Society post-docs are not representative of the huge diversity within the CRS population, but then no other post-doc group is either? At least most of us have held other types of short-term research contract before receiving our fellowship and so have recent direct experience of a wide range of the issues under scrutiny.

  The Royal Society commits itself to excellence "in science itself and in scientific openness, inclusiveness and engagement with a science in society"[58]. As participants in that vision, we could serve the wider CRS population by actively contributing to the debate. For this the Royal Society would be an ideal forum. Should we be using the independence and status associated with our fellowships on behalf of ourselves and the silent majority of our peers?"

  Dr Rachel Flecker holds a Royal Society Wolfson Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow jointly at the Department of Earth Sciences in the University of Cambridge and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre. She is a founding member PdOC, a network for CRS at Cambridge. The views expressed here are the author's and do not necessarily reflect Royal Society policy. If you would like to comment on these views or write an article of a future In My View, please email [email protected]

1 July 2002

57   RCI 3rd (Interim) Report, annex 3, (2001). Back

58   Anniversary Address 2001. Back

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