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


Memorandum submitted by The Royal Society of Chemistry


  The Royal Society of Chemistry [RSC] welcomes the Science and Technology Committee's short inquiry into "Short-term research contracts in science and engineering".

  The RSC believes that the issues under consideration are important contributory factors in ensuring that the UK has a "premier league" science and engineering base on which to build future economic success.


  Employment as a post-doctoral research assistant in a university is part of the training of a research scientist and as such should be viewed as an apprenticeship. UK universities need these talented people in order to carry out research and in turn those who under take this work are well placed to move on to academic posts, or to industry.


  From the chemistry point of view, UK universities are a success. In the recent Research Assessment Exercise the improvements in the quality and range of chemical science research were significant and a tribute to the efforts of our first class internationally renowned leaders in the field, their students and research associates. Excellence in science and engineering demands a first rate infrastructure and a well motivated and rewarded cadre of practitioners.

  The RSC has welcomed the recent investment in the university research infrastructure by the Government in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust. In responses to other consultations, most recently the Roberts' Enquiry, the RSC has made the strong case that while the investment so far is welcome, more longer term investment in the research and teaching infrastructure in Higher Education is needed if our world class scientists and students are to have the facilities and support to do justice to their creative talents and to provide a conducive working environment. Only through long term continuous investment will the UK be able to build, support and develop the high added value knowledge economy that the UK needs and the Government aims to provide.


  The RSC has already welcomed the excellent Roberts' Report that highlights the major issues that need to be addressed and looks forward to the implementation of the many recommendations. Through this short enquiry the Committee is focusing on the key issue of how the UK supports and nurtures its talented and innovative scientists.

  It is critical that the scientific appreciation of science and engineering pervades all aspects of the UK economy. For this reason the RSC welcomes the science graduates that enter careers outside of science. At the same time the RSC believes that it is critical that sufficient of our talented scientists remain within the science employment fields and that innovation and creativity is supported in Higher Education.

  A significant number of science graduates go on to study for research degrees and then to further post doctoral studies in the hope and anticipation of pursuing an academic career. All parties recognize that universities are facing the demographic issue of an aging academic community, due to the rapid expansion of the sector in the 1960s. The need to replenish those who are about to retire and continuously re-invigorate the UK academic community is paramount and so it is important that we treat well those who do take post doctoral posts so that new academics are the best and that they are well trained and motivated.


  Some science graduates will choose to undertake post doctoral positions whatever the conditions or pay, such is their dedication to the subject and their desire for an academic career. Others at the end of their doctoral studies will be made attractive offers of employment outside of academia. A key issue for the Committee's deliberations is to ensure that those in the former situation are not exploited while those in the second category make decisions based upon positive and not negative reasons. If the future for the doctoral student offers only poor remuneration, an uncertain future—no guarantee of short-to-medium term security, minimum career development or opportunities for careers guidance, the burden of paying off the student loan and only the faintest hope of an academic position, then the only the most dedicated will find this prospect attractive. Most will seek opportunities elsewhere.

  The RSC has evidence from research that it has recently carried out that in chemistry that females are more likely than males to opt for a career outside of academia.

  This issue is not just about Higher Education. Students in schools and colleges are affected by what they see happening in Higher Education and decide that they will study science but very few opt for a long term career in the sector. What goes on in Higher Education is connected to the major finding in the Roberts' Report that employers of science and engineering graduates must attract the talented and able people that they need. However, because employers operate in a transparent marketplace, employees know about the variety of salary packages, career support, career challenges, training packages and opportunities for career advancement on offer across the economy. To get the best—the most talented and able scientists and engineers—employers need to offer employment opportunities that match or supersede those on offer elsewhere. Higher Education needs to view its staff, including those on short term contracts, in the same way.


  The RSC recognizes that employing staff on short term contracts offers the opportunity to promote mobility between research groups across the world. Post doctoral positions play a vital role in facilitating scientific collaboration, enable researchers to develop their own research topics and theories before securing an academic position or a job in industry. However, the researchers should have access to the full training and support facilities [including access to the institution's careers service] available to other university staff, proper line management, mentoring and supervision during their tenure. Opportunities to extend their skills, such as those proposed by Imperial College [to send their post doctoral researchers into schools] are a welcomed innovation. Access to careers advice is essential to guide these talented people as they build their careers, which for many, will be outside of academia.


  The RSC welcomed the commitment by the former CEO of the EPSRC, Professor Sir Richard Brook, when he was still in office for the piloting of post doctoral equivalents of the hugely successful Research Councils Graduate Schools. Four such schools were run as pilots but the RSC is aware that in eighteen months there has been little follow-up. The RSC believes that all post doctoral workers should be given a voucher of specific monetary value entitling them to buy courses of approved training, such as those offered by organisations like Careers Research and Advisory Centre (CRAC), or in-house by individual Universities or groups of Universities. Such training should be in addition normal induction offered to staff by Universities and should aim to encourage this talented group of highly educated individuals to realise their talents for their own self-fulfilment and for the benefit of the UK.

  Many researchers on short term contracts carry out vital work in Higher Education. It is not possible to come up with some simplistic formulaic ratio for short-term contract staff to permanent research staff. Appropriate ratios will vary between disciplines. What is clear is that the current arrangements have led to too many short-term researchers. Longer term research grants and more sustained investment in Higher Education will allow the sector to plan its staffing requirements better and to ensure that short term contact are seen as attractive to the most able and talented individuals. The RSC recognizes that developments such as the Concordat and the Research Careers Initiative have been introduced but both have had only minimal impact on the sector.

  The RSC believes that the way forward is the funding and implementation of the findings from the Roberts' Review; more sustained investment in the infrastructure to improve the working environment; longer term funding commitments to enable Higher Education to plan better its staffing requirements; and a commitment by Higher Education to offer attractive salary packages, career support, career challenges, training packages and opportunities for career advancement that match those on offer in the wider economy.


  The Royal Society of Chemistry is the UK Professional Body for chemical scientists and an international Learned Society for the chemical sciences with 46,000 members world-wide. It is a major international publisher of chemical information, supports the teaching of the chemical sciences at all levels and is a leader in bringing science to the public. Reg Charity 207890

1 July 2002

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