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


Memorandum submitted by Professor Colin W Taylor, Professor of Cellular Pharmacology, University of Cambridge

  I welcome the enquiry by the Science and Technology Committee into short-term contracts in science and engineering, and hope that my personal comments may be of some benefit to your deliberations.


  I accept the need, indeed advantages, of short-term contracts as one element of a funding strategy, at least for junior post-docs:

    (a)  by encouraging mobility during the early stages of their training, post-doctoral fellows broaden their experience of research and techniques and they often gain international perspectives and long-lasting affiliations.

    (b)  by delaying appointment to permanent positions, it is possible to realistically assess whether an individual is able to conduct independent research. It can otherwise be difficult to distinguish an excellent post-doc from an excellent lab. Without short-term contracts at the post-doctoral level, decisions about who is to secure permanent research positions would be made too early.

    (c)  they can provide a dynamic research culture, capable of responding quickly to new research opportunities.


  But there are problems too, each resulting from the inappropriate extension of short-term contracts to staff for whom the benefits described above do not apply:

    (d)   Short-term contracts may provide an effective means of selecting staff destined to head research groups, but they are poorly suited to other staff. Budding leaders have some control over their destiny: they can at least apply for independent fellowships and be judged by past performance. But the position of support staff is more akin to the relationship between slaves and a Pharoah: if the Pharoah goes to his tomb, then the slaves must follow. Increasingly the only option for technical staff or supporting research staff ("lieutenants") is to be supported by funds secured by a lab head. Support staff with permanent contracts are becoming an endangered species. We have no effective means of channelling "fellowships" directly to the outstanding technician or excellent research lieutenant. A consequence is that we are systematically destroying these important levels of the career structure. "All chiefs and no Indians" is not an effective way to organise research. To a degree, these problems are self-inflicted as Departments have diverted funds from support staff to academic staff to maximise RAE performance, but it is difficult for individual heads of department to resist that pressure.

    (e)   The insecurity resulting from short-term contracts may be an acceptable price to pay for the advantages it brings during the early post-doctoral years, but increasingly there are heads of research groups for whom short-term contracts extend 20 or more years beyond the PhD. These staff may be amongst the most active in a department, often contributing substantially to teaching and administration as well as to the research for which they are funded. Yet they enjoy neither secure employment nor the security of being able to plan long-term research and recruit research staff and PhD students. The latter issue is particularly serious when the duration of the secure funding of the group leader falls below three years, because he/she cannot then guarantee being around for long enough to train staff. Fellowships rarely offer more than five-year tranches of funding, so fellows may find themselves able to recruit staff only in the first two-years of an award, see their group decay as renewal dates approach, and then have to start over again if the fellowship is renewed. Such staff will often be tethered geographically (children, employment of spouse, etc), but there may little incentive for a department to offer a permanent position when it can enjoy the same benefits funded from external sources. In summary for more established researchers, the short-term contract brings none of the advantages that it brings to trainees. Instead, staff (and I suspect a disproportionate number are women) become vulnerable to exploitation by host departments, they have none of the security of employment enjoyed by their colleagues (often doing almost identical jobs), and they are seriously handicapped in their ability to tackle long-term research problems.

  I would like to encourage your committee to consider how we might address these two issues:

    —  How, with increasing dependence on funding delivered by research grants, can we provide a secure and attractive career structure for technical and research support staff?

    —  How, without jeopardising the funding provided by the many agencies that support fellowships, can we ensure that senior research staff supported by "soft money" enjoy conditions of employment more like those of permanent staff?

29 May 2002

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