Memorandum submitted by The Royal Society
1. The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE)
is pleased to respond to the House of Commons Science and Technology
Select Committee's request for comments on short-term research
contracts in science and engineering. The RSE is Scotland's National
Academy of Science and Letters, comprising Fellows elected on
the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic
disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions.
This response has been compiled with the assistance of a wide
cross section of Fellows and approved for distribution under delegated
authority from the Council.
2. The current problem of short-term contracts
essentially stems from the high number of short-term research
grants. These research grants are short-term because research
funding agencies want to remain maximally responsive to new scientific
developments. However, the issue of research careers in higher
education is becoming increasingly important due to difficulties
in recruiting sufficient high quality research students and postdoctoral
workers to undertake this research.
3. The specific questions identified in
the call for evidence are addressed below.
4. There are advantages in short-term contracts
to the institution. They include flexibility, for example, in
allowing those with a suitable background to be deployed in priority
areas; retention of suitable staff on short term contracts until
permanent posts become available; facility with which staff numbers
can be reduced at short notice in response to unexpected reductions
in other support funding; ease with which individuals who do not
perform satisfactorily or are clearly unsuited to a particular
research activity can have their appointments terminated.
5. The disadvantages arising from short-term
contracts, however, include there being a limited time for curiosity
driven as opposed to goal oriented research and preference being
given to short term rather than to long term research projects.
At a personal level, lack of job security may lead to low morale
and a high percentage of time spent seeking other more permanent
employment in science or elsewhere. The insecurity of short-term
contracts may give rise to difficulties in buying houses and planning
families, and these may be exacerbated when both partners are
career scientists on differing short-term contracts. It should
be borne in mind, however, that contracts in industry can also
be expressed as short term, often with less favourable terms than
6. There is also a perception among many
undergraduate and postgraduate students that academic research
is not a rewarding and satisfying career, a view based on observation
of the experience of those currently in university positions.
Pay is undoubtedly a major issue at all levels. Increasing the
stipends of postgraduate students and young postdoctoral workers,
as has been proposed recently, will undoubtedly help to attract
the best undergraduates into postgraduate training and PhDs into
postdoctoral positions but unless there are corresponding improvements
in pay and conditions at all levels this is not likely to address
the difficulty of attracting the most able individuals into academic
careers. To obtain high-class engineers and scientists, the country
needs good educators. However, with academics and researchers
in the engineering sciences increasingly attracted into industry,
there is likely to be a serious shortfall of such scientists and
engineers in universities. This could result in HEIs being unable
to provide well-qualified researchers in the future.
7. It should be recognised that researchers
on short-term contracts are not a homogeneous group. Some researchers
undertake a brief period of contract research following Ph.D.
work, often in order to work out more thoroughly a line of research
already initiated, or to obtain experience in another area that
has attracted their enthusiasm during their doctoral studies.
Such people have no intention of pursuing long-term careers in
universities, but may well want to use the contacts of the supervisor
to secure a reasonable job in industry, or they may well leave
research altogether once they have achieved their particular goals.
The main concern that those advising such researchers have in
terms of their careers is to make sure that they do not stay in
university too long, else they run the risk of being seen as failed
academics. The length of time such post-doctoral workers stay
becomes a delicate balance between acquiring important research
skills valued by industry and appearing to see industry as a career
8. A second group do consciously set out
as contract researchers with the aim of attaining a conventional
academic post in a research-intensive university. Finally, there
is a small but important group of researchers who have no intention
of competing for conventional academic positions, but who are
outstanding researchers who wish to stay in a university environment.
Such researchers are looking for a quite different career path,
and a quite different relationship with the university: in effect,
the deal they seek can be summarised as the university providing
accommodation and basic facilities, the researcher providing salary,
overheads and equipment. Universities need to become more adept
at career management for these groups, and set out more clearly
the criteria for promotion.
9. In general, the position of those on
short-term contracts, at least for those early in their careers,
is probably not much different to that of their peers in business
and industry but is in marked contrast to the stability and lack
of movement of those in established university posts.
10. There are numerous examples where principal
investigators have had to prevent valuable members of staff leaving
research and going into other more permanent areas of employment.
There is also, however, the pressing problem of attracting the
most able individuals into academic careers.
11. In a healthy scientific career structure
there should be more entering at the lower levels than there are
positions at the top as it is impossible to predict reliably who
amongst PhD applicants has all the many characteristics required
for a successful research career.
12. Short-term research contracts have risen
up the agenda partly through the advent of the concordat, and
the working out of one of its main themes: that research staff
in universities should, as far as possible, have the same rights
and responsibilities as permanent mainstream academic staff. Programmes
to help young scientists take control of their careers have also
been established as a result of the concordat but more needs to
be done particularly at the PhD level. Recent legislation, however,
giving acquired rights to researchers after four years of employment
has also focussed managerial attention.
13. Undoubtedly, the offer of open-ended
employment by a university would ease some problems, such as mortgage
and insurance difficulties. In Scotland, in the post-1992 higher
education sector, several universities have introduced such schemes,
usually with a two or three-year probation periods. This could
be a model for this group of staff in the pre-92 sector, although
the practicalities of operating with much larger numbers needs
to be examined carefully.
14. Consideration would need to be given
as to whether the introduction of such a scheme would substantially
reduce the number of posts available to those just completing
their Ph.D. studies. Clearly if the net effect were to lengthen
the tenure of contract researchers, and there were to be no increase
in the net research support monies available, then there will
be fewer initial openings, and the continual renewal of the contract
research base, which has undoubtedly been to the benefit of UK
science, would be compromised. The evidence from the French experience
with CNRS was that the decision to give contract researchers within
the CNRS tenure some 30 years ago led to a substantial increase
in research output initially, but the system became increasingly
sclerotic, with the result that deep and harmful cuts needed eventually
to be made to restore competitiveness. It will be important, therefore,
to ensure that career openings from Ph.D. continue to be available
to those interested in a career in research, whether an academic
career or one in industry, and this can only be done by recognising
that many of those who enter contract research will not obtain
permanent employment in universities. More clearly recognised
exit points and an environment in which those who choose to leave
are not seen as having failed in any way would assist in this
15. Another way forward is through the increased
use of Research Fellowships. Fellowships provide a completely
different way of funding science, by assessing the track-record
of a researcher. Fellows are then entrusted to chose the right
research areas themselves. The majority of Fellowships currently
available in the UK are aimed at researchers running their own
labs, but a few, such as those of the RSE are available to postdocs
and lecturers. The scientific career structure could be greatly
improved if more of these Fellowships were available for the best
postdocs, which could be taken up directly after PhD work, awarded
on the basis of research excellence.
16. The professional position of short-term
contract research staff in promoted grades also needs to be enhanced,
with universities allowing them to supervise research students,
and with Research Councils finding mechanisms to allow them to
propose new work and to act as Principal Investigators.
17. In responding to this inquiry the Society
would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of
Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: Academic
Careers for Graduate Scientists (April 1995) and Review of the
supply of scientists and engineers (August 2001). Copies of this
response and of the above publications are available from the
Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands (email: [email protected]).