Memorandum submitted by The Save British
1. SBS is pleased to submit this response
to the Committee's Inquiry into the use of short-term contracts
in science and engineering. SBS is a voluntary organisation campaigning
for the health of science and technology throughout UK Society,
and is supported by 1,5000 individual members, and some 70 institutional
members, including universities, learned societies, venture capitalists,
financiers, industrial companies and publishers.
2. In addition to submitting this evidence,
SBS has, at the suggestion of the Committee, circulated the call
for evidence via electronic mail to many of the Society's members,
requesting submissions from those who have direct experience of
either employing people on short-term contracts or of being employed
3. Our response follows the set of questions
outlined in the call for evidence.
5. In the abstract, there is nothing wrong
with people from any workforce being on short-term contracts.
Moreover, the increase in the use of such contracts in science
and engineering has largely mirrored a more general trend in the
labour market. Many workers in the City of London, for example,
are employed on short-term contracts or under equivalent terms.
6. The problem for the academic research
base is that the publicly-funded corewhat used to be called
the "well-found laboratory"is no longer strong
enough to bear the problems that accompany a preponderance of
7. For bright, active, young researchers,
one or two short-term contracts may be a good way of allowing
the opportunity to develop an independent research career without
being too strongly tied to a single group or institution over
a long period. But the system only works if the inevitable gaps
between contracts can be filled from core funds, and if there
is a reasonable chance of a more secure, longer-term career in
8. Because the growth of resources of the
Funding Council leg of research investment (from which the core,
well-found laboratory is supposed to be funded) has not kept pace
with the growth of the Science Budget (which funds short-term
grants) universities now find that their core budget is already
so strained (implementing health and safety regulations, employing
technicians etc) that there is precious little money with which
to bridge gaps between short-term contracts or with which to make
forward commitments of employment to contract research staff.
9. In 1986, for every £1.00 of Research
Council investment (mainly in short-term grants), universities
received an average of £1.27 in core funding, a small percentage
of which was used to ameliorate the negative consequences of the
otherwise valuable system of short-term postdoctoral contracts.
The equivalent figure today is 55p of core funding for every £1.00
of Research Council investment.1 These core resources are spread
so thinly that university administrators can no longer afford
to relieve the negative effects of the short-term contract system.
10. This means that when postdoctoral researchers
find themselves with temporary gaps in their employment, through
no fault of their own (for example because the Natural Environment
Research Council has cancelled an entire round of grants)2, there
is no leeway in the system.
11. Unlike workers in many other industries
that rely heavily on short-term contracts, postdoctoral researchers
are badly remunerated, and do not receive large salaries to compensate
for the high risk of redundancy that they run.
12. In extreme cases, excellent researchers
find themselves without a job at the time that should be the height
of their productive research careers. Others spend a decade or
more on short-term contracts, only to become disillusioned with
the system when it becomes clear that there is unlikely ever to
be a job for them on the academic payroll.
13. In other cases, researchers find difficulties
in such areas as obtaining a mortgage, because they have almost
no security of income.
14. Other effects include the wastage of
a great deal of time, as excellent researchers are constantly
applying for their next contract rather than getting on with the
job of producing high quality research.
15. Young researchers wishing to take a
career break, especially young women wanting to have children,
rarely have the chance to become established in an academic post
before doing so, which exacerbates the difficulties of rejoining
the research community at a later date. This is a ridiculous waste
16. Although we know of no study that has
examined the issue, SBS suspects that the demoralising effects
of these problems can affect the outlook and performance of those
researchers who remain within the science and engineering research
17. As well as the problems for individual
researchers, other people within research groups suffer, as far
too many postdoctoral researchers end up spending a high proportion
of their time learning skills that would once have been the preserve
of technicians, only to leave a year or so later, leaving a gap
in the technical capability of the team that must be filled by
yet another short-term postdoctoral researcher learning the same
18. In short, if one were to design an efficient
research base that was both fair and honest to its staff, and
optimised the potential for producing good research, it would
not have the preponderance of short-term contracts that typify
the current UK system.
19. Yes, although it is difficult to disentangle
the effects of short-term contracts from other reasons for leaving.
20. The evidence comes in three types, namely:
(i) Anecdotal evidence
21. Anecdotally, many young researchers
report to SBS that they are either thinking about leaving research
careers in the UK (either to go abroad or to leave research altogether)
or have indeed left.
(ii) Statistical studies of recruitment and
22. Statistical studies show that, in general,
many of the best young researchers leave UK science and that universities
are having increasing difficulties recruiting good people.
23. As an example of the former, SBS carried
out a detailed bibliometric study of those people who had been
awarded doctoral degrees in 1988, and found that those who emigrated
to the USA in the succeeding decade had, on average, been publishing
work of a higher quality when they were still in the UK than their
colleagues who had remained.3
24. As an example of evidence for difficulties
in recruitment, an SBS survey of the UK Deans of Science found
that 57 per cent of universities had left posts unfilled or returned
research grants because they could not attract candidates of the
right calibre, and 37 per cent had actually been forced to appoint
people who were not really good enough.4
(ii) Direct surveys of researchers' opinions
25. When directly questioned, researchers
report that insecurity and a lack of the prospect of a permanent
job are major factors in contributing to their decision to leave
research. In 1997, the Dearing Committee found that, of those
who thought they might leave the Higher Education sector, 34 per
cent of Research Assistants and those on Research Fellowships
gave as the main factor in their decision to leave that academia
was too insecure or that there were not enough jobs.5 Combined,
these two manifestations of the same problem formed by far the
greatest single main factor.
26. This was a substantial change from 1986,
when a similar survey found that job insecurity did not feature
in the top five factors affecting decisions to leave academia.6
27. When Dearing performed his survey, something
like 50 per cent of all research staff in universities (including
those engaged in teaching and research) were on short-term contracts.
When the previous study was conducted, the figure was approximately
30 per cent. 10 years earlier it had been nearer 20 per cent.7,8
28. In other words, as the proportion of
contract staff has risen inexorably, because of a deliberate policy
to shift the balance of funding away from the Funding Councils,
so there has been a simultaneous and dramatic rise in the number
of researchers who report that job insecurity leads them seriously
to consider leaving research. Correlation does not prove causation,
but few who work in the university system believe that these two
trends are not inextricably linked.
29. Given that short-term contracts have
significant benefits at the early stages of a research career,
it would be foolish to swing the pendulum too far back towards
permanent posts. It would probably be unwise to go back to the
days when 80 per cent of people involved in university research
30. Given that job insecurity did not figure
in the list of reasons for leaving research in 1986, when about
30 per cent of those engaged in research had short-term contracts,
it is reasonable to assume that this balance did not lead to the
kind of problems that now seem to be common.
31. However, the growth of fellowships,
and the trend evident in the recent Roberts Report9 for policy
to move further in this direction, introduces a third element
into the balance. Fellowships add a significant new constraint
into the mix of funding, because they generally carry either a
formal or an informal expectation that the holder will eventually
be given an academic post, thus potentially reducing the number
of such posts available for those on short-term grant-funded contracts.
32. The Research Careers Initiative (RCI),
following the Concordat on short-term research contracts has made
steady progress in examining the problems and making recommendations.10
33. However, the RCI cannot solve the underlying
problem, which is that the distribution of funds via the different
legs of the dual support system is badly skewed. Recent large
increases in the budget of the Office of Science and Technology
have been extremely welcome, but if the research system is to
continue to produce the world-class product it has hitherto generated,
these increases must be matched by additional funding for the
Higher Education Funding Councils.
34. A substantial element of the required
policy is the need for the resources of the Higher Education Funding
Councils to keep pace with those of the Research Councils. However
unfashionable it may have become to say so, it remains true that
sufficient unencumbered funds, for use at the local discretion
of Vice Chancellors and Heads of Department, in tandem with directed
funds from the Research Councils, are one of the mainstays of
genuinely effective management of the science base. By continuing
to attach too many strings to funds, and thus limiting local freedom
to deal directly with the problems of short-term contracts, the
existing funding mechanisms have created the problems we now see
in the career structures of many young scientists.
35. The work of the Research Careers Initiative,
and of the Roberts Review, in identifying key areas for concern
and potential solutions, is valuable, but those solutions will
only work if the funding mechanisms are suitable for the job.
36. This is not, in itself, a call for more
money for the science base (although more money is needed, as
pointed out by the Select Committee in its report on the Research
Assessment Exercise)11, but a return to the principles (if not
the details) of the ways in which the dual support system used
to work. Two years ago, the Treasury identified the dual support
system as an "effective" part of funding the science
base but concluded that "[t]here is a need to maintain balance...to
minimise the risk of over-determining" the use of funds.12
If this policy were actually implemented, the problems currently
associated with short-term contracts would be very considerably
1 Forward Look 2001: Government-funded
science, enginerring and technology, The Stationery Office
2 The Times, 23 May 2002.
3 Nature, 7 September 2000, p.13.
4 Recruitment of researchers in university
science departments, SBS, 2000. [SBS 00/20]
5 Report Number 3 of Higher education
in the learning society, Report of the National Committee
into Higher Education, Stationary Office, 1997.
6 Report on factors affecting the recruitment
and retention of non-clinical academic staff, PA Personnel
7 Academic research careers for graduate
scientists, Fourth Report of the House of Lords Select Committee
on Science and Technology, Session 1994-95. [HL Paper 60].
8 Policy forum on contract research,
Institute of Physics, 2001. [IoP Policy Paper 2001/2].
9 SET for Success: The supply of people
with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills,
HM Treasury, 2002.
10 SBS has a relevant interest to declare:
the Chairman of the Executive Committee of SBS, Professor Richard
Joyner, is a member of the Research Careers Initiative.
11 The Research Assessment Exercise,
Second report of the House of Commons Science and Technology
Committee, Session 2001-02. [HoC 507]
12 Cross-cutting study of science research
funding: Analysis, arguments, and proposals, HM Treasury,