Memorandum submitted by the UK Life Sciences
The UK Life Sciences Committee (UKLSC) is an
umbrella body representing 17 leading learned societies (see Appendix)
comprising some 35,000 cell, molecular and physiological life
scientists, many of whom work in UK universities and research
institutes. The present submission was compiled from responses
made to the questions in the consultation by the committees of
individual member societies of UKLSC. Since these committees largely
comprise senior academics and researchers UKLSC is able to speak
with authority on the issues raised in the inquiry.
1.1 Yes, it really matters from the points
of view of discouraging young people from embarking on a research
career, demoralising the bulk of researchers who reach the stage
of having completed two to three short-term contracts and face
an uncertain future, and being inefficient for research teams.
1.2 There is no question that short-term
contracts are beneficial for new post-docs. These are still establishing
research credentials and mobility between laboratories, with the
consequent cross-fertilisation of ideas, helps them to gain experience
and move towards becoming independent researchers. It also provides
some flexibility to university research groups. The process is
rather similar to the rotations that junior hospital doctors follow
before deciding on a specialisation.
1.3 However, the lack of funding continuity
inherent in the present system becomes a real problem for contract
research staff (CRS) when they face making a major commitment
such as a mortgage or marriage. For female CRS considering starting
a family there is no assurance of paid maternity leave or continued
employment afterwards. It is also more difficult for CRS to find
employment as they gain experience and become more expensive to
support through grant money. Funders are cost-driven and will
not support the salary of a senior post-doc when they perceive
the same job could be done by a more junior CRS. This does not
give proper value to the wealth of expertise and knowledge that
a senior experienced worker can bring to a team. It affects particularly
those scientists, perhaps in their early 40s, who do good independent
work but do not want to become group leaders or lecturers.
1.4 The short-term contract system is inefficient
for research and research teams because:
it drives researchers to address
problems with three-year solutions at the expense of longer-term
for much of the final year of a contract
the CRS is pre-occupied with the need to have the grant renewed
or to search for another post;
CRS can frequently disrupt a research
project by abandoning a post mid-term if a more secure position
becomes available. It is rarely possible to plug a gap like this
usefully, and it makes project management difficult;
if affects the continuity of research
programmes since it is becoming increasingly difficult to retain
highly qualified, trained and motivated CRS to underpin the efforts
of research teams. Senior CRS may well have expertise that the
Principal Investigator lacks;
it is expensive and wasteful in that
CRS trained in new techniques may quickly move on.
1.5 The lack of a clear career structure,
together with the uncertain prospects and poor salary, discourages
undergraduates from embarking on a PhD and post-docs moving to
a career in academic science.
2.1 The very best / most driven CRS can
be fairly assured of career development and a tenured academic
position, but the large majority face massive insecurity, stress
or demoralisation. For these the ability to plan their careers
is severely limited.
2.2 The result is that talented and highly
trained scientists abandon academic research. As discussed in
section one, many leave at the senior post-doc stage by which
time it is difficult to secure another research post either in
academia or industry. Consequently they may retrain and move into
non-science-related careers. This represents a waste of training
and investment. Such senior post-docs may be highly motivated
by science at a practical level and have no desire to become team
leaders. Because of family and life-style commitments, women researchers
frequently fall into this category. There are very few tenured
positions for career bench scientists.
2.3 CRS may regard a lifelong career in
science as being almost unattainable and therefore always be on
the lookout for options in other areas. This can reduce the motivation
to engage fully in their current research.
2.4 There is a lack of incentive for a research
group to train and develop a CRS, knowing that the person will
soon have to move on. But if training is inadequate then the CRS
will be less able to compete for the next step of the research
2.5 The Chair of UKLSC summed up the position:
the very best (CRS) will make it into academic positions but may
be turned off; the worse should not make it and are wasting their
time; the middle, and largest, group of highly trained and motivated
scientists sometimes struggle for many years then usually leave.
3.1 The Roberts Review team was convinced
by the evidence available to it that there are problems across
science and engineering at all stages in the recruitment, retention
and development of good post-doctoral researchers. Its report
highlighted as reasons the lack of a career structure together
with the uncertain prospects of short-term contracts, and increasingly
uncompetitive salaries. UKLSC would endorse this conclusion.
3.2 Within the life sciences there is evidence
that some of the brightest graduates may not be continuing into
research. The Biochemical Society's annual surveys of initial
graduate employment show that the proportion of graduates with
Firsts electing to start research degrees decreased by 18 per
cent between 1998 and 2000. The proportion of PhD graduates moving
to research positions in academia or industry also decreased significantly,
while the proportion moving to careers outside science trebled
from three to almost 10 per cent.
3.3 In a recent on-line survey of Biochemical
Society members 89 per cent of respondents considered that poor
pay and job insecurity in academic research are important disincentives
to bright graduates starting PhDs. There was strong support (87
per cent) for the need to create more tenured "bench scientist"
positions in universities.
3.4 In the present consultation the Head
of Department at a leading university, whose department was rated
five in each of the last to RAEs, reported to UKLSC:
increased difficulty in recruiting
really good PhD students;
great difficulty in recruiting lecturers
from the pool of British-trained post-docs. The last three appointments
were all scientists from abroad.
He concluded that the pool of homegrown talent
is drying up and ascribed this to poor salary and career prospects.
Increasing PhD stipends and initial post-doc salaries (as recommended
in the Roberts report) would not in itself overcome this problem.
3.5 Other respondents cited personal experiences
of good post-docs leaving the system. Although anecdotal, these
could readily be quantified in a more detailed survey. For experienced
post-docs the most important factors appeared to be the lack of
security and lack of career structure, with poor salary less important.
For new PhDs and early post-docs low academic salaries compared
to those achievable elsewhere were likely to be a greater disincentive.
One respondent pointed out that the private sector is moving towards
short-term contracts and that employment is becoming less secure,
but this has not apparently discouraged some of our best graduates
from seeking jobs in that sector.
4.1 Respondents found this difficult to
answer because it will vary between universities, departments
and disciplines. Where figures were suggested they ranged from
1:1 to 3:1.
More important factors were considered to be:
the need for CRS to see a clear progression
structure from PhD onwards (see section 6);
that the balance enables research
groups to maintain the impetus of their work and continuity of
skills and experience is assured. Each group should contain, or
have access to, a permanent member of staff with high-calibre
specialised technical skills, as well as a permanent senior post-doc
who can provide continuity of experience.
4.2 Several respondents stated that they
would not want to see an increase in research-only staff (ie non-teaching)
in universities, other than to provide essential core support.
5.1 It was apparent from the responses that
experience differs between universities. The majority of respondents
considered that these initiatives have had little impact. Some,
however, though that they have increased awareness of employment
law, which has encouraged CRS to become more involved in planning
their futures. Others were aware of universities that have linked
holders of research fellowships into an academic career structure,
or that have formal post-doc employment programmes and mentoring
schemes with redundancy rights for CRS. Some universities were
known to have introduced new policies in relation to post-doc
employment and training, but respondents suspected a gap between
policy and practice.
5.2 There are clearly examples of good practice
that need to be more widely disseminated. The research Careers
Initiative has issued a series of reports and good practice guidelines.
The Roberts report concluded: "This has led most universities
to review and to some extent improve their procedures and their
pattern of employment of CRS".
6.1 The key issues are clearly:
The uncertainty of CRS careers
6.2 There needs to be a clear structure
for CRS progression that recognises that only a small proportion
will find tenured academic positions. UKLSC agrees with the Roberts
report that contract research should be seen as a preparation
for a range of careers that reflect the skills possessed by CRS.
IT also supports he concept of there being three pathways down
which CRS may progress: industrial, academic, or Research Associate
6.3 This will require a better system of
appraisals, mentoring, and careers advice early on in an academic
career. The benefit is that it will lead to fewer CRS proceeding
with false expectations of tenured academic employment and more
finding alternative employment at an early post-doc stage. There
is a question of how continuing professional development (CPD)
will be funded and provided. The Robert's report noted that from
the perspective of universities the principal desired output of
a post-doctoral researcher is research, principally in the form
of publications, and this leads to CPD being under-emphasised.
The report recommended that funders of CRS should provide adequate
money earmarked for CPD within the research project grant. UKLSC
supports the Roberts report's further recommendation that all
relevant funding from HEFCE and the Research Councils should be
made conditional on universities demonstrating that they are managing
the careers of CRS appropriately.
6.4 The idea of creating new five year Fellowships
to prepare CRS on the academic pathway from lectureships is an
interesting one, although if only 200 are intended across all
disciplines then it only touches on demand. Furthermore, it could
cause problems for universities in that they will be expected
to underwrite lectureships for the Fellows very early in their
careers. With regard to the posts for what Roberts terms Research
Associates UKLSC societies favour more resources being devolved
to university departments to enable them to underwrite a limited
number of permanent positions that may be financed on a rolling
basis from grant income. This would help to retain a key grouping
of post-docs in academic research by providing security of employment.
It would need to be done in relation to the strategic planning
for research within each university department. Funders should
also appreciate the value of team building and recognise the additional
skills that experienced researched can provide.
6.5 Universities need greater access to
more secure, sustained, funding for research in order to be able
to plan better for longer-term research.
6.6 As noted in Section 3.4, increasing
the stipends of PhD students and new post-docs will not resolve
the issue of perceived poor salaries and conditions in academic
research. Young scientists are bright enough to look forward and
ask themselves what they will earn by the time they make it to
a Professorship in there 40s. In the recent on-line survey of
Biochemical Society members only 34 per cent considered that supposed
benefits of academic life such as intellectual satisfaction and
academic freedom compensate for poor pay and conditions.
6.7 The forthcoming government Spending
Review needs to make substantial funding available to improve
academic salaries and to improve research infrastructure. Data
in Tables 5.6 and 5.7 of the Roberts report indicate that biology
is one of the disciplines in which universities have had to use
promotion to more senior positions as a tool for recruiting and
retaining staff. UKLSC societies do not favour funding being linked
to initiatives, and certainly, where they are then universities
should receive the full amount of funding. Initiative that require
matching input cause universities enormous problems and squeeze
money available for other purposes.
21 June 2002