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


Memorandum submitted by The Wellcome Trust


  1.  The Wellcome Trust (the "Trust") is an independent, medical research-funding charity, established under the will of Sir Henry Wellcome and funded from a private endowment, which is managed with long-term stability and growth in mind. Its mission is to foster and promote research with the aim of improving human and animal health. The Trust supports more than 5000 researchers in 45 different countries. In addition, the Trust funds major initiatives in the public's engagement with science and is the country's leading supporter of research into the history of medicine.

  2.  Key to the Trust's mission is to meet the training and career development needs of researchers—to ensure that academic biomedical research remains an attractive and competitive career option for the most creative and innovative minds. To achieve this aim the Trust provides a portfolio of personal award schemes for basic and clinical scientists, historians of medicine and other researchers within the Trust's sphere of interest. These awards are available at all stages of the academic research career, from PhD training studentships through to Senior and Principal Research Fellowships.

  3.  In response to the Committee's inquiry the Trust provides a brief background setting out its general position and has then answered the specific questions. Throughout this response references are made to a number of recently published Trust-funded publications (included with our response for your reference), namely:

    —  Review of PhD Research Training: Career Paths of a 1988-90 Prize Student Cohort

    —  Review of PhD Research Training: The Student Perspective

    —  Review of PhD Research Training: The Supervisor Perspective

    —  Radical Thinking, Creative Solutions: Conference Report


  4.  The Trust welcomes the Science and Technology Committee's interest in short-term contracts in science and engineering. It is a complex issue, as short-term research contracts are used to employ people at a variety of stages in academic research careers, from first postdoctoral appointment to advanced level positions for senior academics. Additionally, many key research support staff are employed on short-term research contracts.

  5.  The Trust attaches considerable importance to the careers of the individuals it supports, which is manifest in a number of ways; through provision of enhanced salaries; through in-depth studies which follow the career paths of Trust-funded individuals and which seek their opinions on important aspects of their career choices, and through representation of Trust staff on a number of forums charged with addressing key national issues in this area.

  6.  One issue raised by Sir Gareth Roberts' review on the supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills was the increasingly uncompetitive salaries of contract researchers. This is an area where the Trust has endeavored to take a lead within the UK higher education sector.

  7.  Pay scales for post-doctoral researchers funded by the Trust are based on university levels and scales, but since October 1989, all scientific post-doctoral researchers with salaries funded by the Trust have received an enhancement premium worth between 8-16 per cent of their basic salary. Furthermore in October 1999, the Trust granted a salary enhancement of 30 per cent above the basic university pay scale for many of its research fellows at UK universities. Those eligible for this additional enhancement include all UK-based, scientific, non-clinical Trust-funded research fellows with contracts of three years or more funded within the Trust's Career Development Programmes. The Trust's objective was not only to further its contribution to UK science and continue to attract top quality scientists, but to challenge the Government to honour the Bett[62] report and match these awards across scientific research salaries.

  8.  The Trust was strongly supportive of Sir Gareth Roberts' Review on its publication earlier this year and believes the report deserves to set the future agenda for academic research careers in the UK. We hope that the Government will be supportive of the many recommendations it makes in the forthcoming spending review.


  Question 1.  Does the preponderance of short-term research contracts really matter? Why?

  Question 2.  What are the implications for researchers and their careers?

  Question 3.  Is there evidence that the present situation causes good researchers to leave?

  9.  People are at the heart of developing a robust research base and the most creative and innovative minds need to be attracted to academic research. However, we have concerns that many aspects of scientific careers are not currently attractive. The preponderance of short-term research contracts and perceived lack of career structure associated with short-term contracts underpins much of the dissatisfaction with an academic career path.

  10.  At a recent Trust sponsored workshop[63] exploring career issues in UK academic science, job insecurity created by short-term research contracts was stated as both a key reason for leaving/contemplating leaving academic research and a key obstacle to career progression in an academic research career. Short-term contracts have both professional and personal effects. On the professional front, it may be difficult and time consuming to identify the next job and particularly difficult to identify a permanent job. This can lead to the loss of research momentum, especially when staff have to change research area. On a personal level, the required mobility for maintaining employment on such contracts may be difficult if there are family commitments, or if someone does not wish to relocate to another institution. Lastly, not knowing what or where the next job may be can have a major psychological effect on the researcher.

  11.  Reports published recently by the Trust on aspects of PhD research training indicate that many young scientists give up a career in research early in their careers. For example, in a cohort of Trust-funded PhD students who graduated between 1991 and 1993, 81 per cent took a first post-doctoral position in academic research, but only 46 per cent remained in academic research four to seven years after graduation. Almost one-third of the students interviewed in a Trust study[64], indicated that they were unlikely to remain in scientific research. In both cases, the main reasons cited were low pay and poor career structure.

  12.  The unattractiveness of scientific careers may also be having an impact on recruitment at the PhD level. In the Trust's most recent report on PhD training[65], almost half of PhD supervisors surveyed felt that it is now more difficult to recruit high calibre PhD students than it was five years ago. The main reasons given were again that a scientific career is unattractive financially and that long-term career prospects for students are poor. The introduction of student loans and the debt this has created for many students, may also be an increasingly important factor in determining career choices beyond the undergraduate level.

  13.  The Trust is currently scoping a research project to explore the experiences and career pathways of contract research staff in more detail.

  Question 4.  What would be the right balance between contract and permanent research staff in universities and research institutions?

  14.  This is not an easy question to answer. Sir Gareth Roberts' Review outlines both the advantages and disadvantages of contract research. The lack of career structure, poor human resources management and uncompetitive salaries all combine to make contract research positions particularly unattractive for many of the best PhD graduates. The Trust believes that there is currently an imbalance in the sector, currently weighted in favour of contract research positions.

  Question 5.  Has the Concordat and Research Careers Initiative made any difference?

  15.  The Trust believes that some useful progress has been made improving the management of research careers through the implementation of the Concordat and the work of the Research Careers Initiative (RCI). However, it is clear that there is much still to be done and as Sir Gareth Roberts noted in the third Interim Report on the RCI's work, "the pace and scale of change need to be increased further to fully deliver the objectives of the RCI".

  Question 6.  How should policy move forward?

  16.  The Roberts' Review makes a number of recommendations that the Trust would fully endorse. First, we would strongly agree that there is a need for universities to improve salaries of academic and contract research staff. We are in agreement with Roberts that starting salaries for postdoctoral researchers should move in the near future to at least £20,000. We hope also that the Government will provide additional funding to permit universities to respond to market pressures and improve recruitment and retention of academic staff and contract researchers in disciplines where there are shortages due to high market demand. The Trust is also very supportive of the Review's call to increase the level of PhD stipends and believe this is vital to recruit the best students to PhD courses. We agree with the Review that it is essential that PhD stipends keep pace with graduates' salary expectations, particularly given the increasing importance of student debt on graduates' career choices. In addition to increased salaries and stipends the Trust would be supportive of recommendations made by the Academy of Medical Sciences earlier this year[66], which suggest that, as far as possible, all contract research workers should receive the same terms and conditions of employment as permanent staff (eg annual, sickness and maternity leave, redundancy rights to name but a few).

  17.  Second, the Roberts' Review believes that there should be clearer career pathways and suggests that prestigious academic fellowships be established, where Fellows serve a probationary period of two to three years. On satisfactory completion of these the host institution would be obliged to offer a permanent post to the Fellow. The Trust strongly supports this recommendation and indeed has itself operated such a scheme, the University Award, for a number of decades.

  18.  The Trust believes that a useful model allowing short term contracts to be embedded within institutional career paths has been developed by the University of Wales College of Medicine. The University has developed a "Prestigious Fellowship Scheme", launched on 1 June 2002. The aim of the scheme is "to provide a clear developmental plan and a supportive environment for College staff who are awarded, in competition, (prestigious) fellowships from a recognised external body"[67]. These Fellowships are in the spirit of the Roberts' Review and allow on successful review Senior Fellowship holders to have posts made "on-going". They also allow holders of Junior or Intermediate Fellowships to be encouraged and helped to apply for more senior fellowships or agree other career options.

  19.  Third, the Roberts' Review notes that it is important for postdoctoral researchers to be able to develop individual career paths, reflecting the different career destinations—Industrial, Academic and Research Associate—open to them, and that funding arrangements reflect the development of these career paths. The Review believes that enabling the individual to establish a clear career path, and a development plan to take them along it, is critical to improving the attractiveness of postdoctoral research. The Trust would also endorse this view and support the recommendation that HEIs take responsibility for ensuring that all their postdoctoral researchers have a clear career development plan and have access to appropriate training opportunities.

  20.  The Trust believes that Sir Gareth Roberts' Review sets a clear agenda for change within the sector. However, it will be difficult to realise this challenging agenda without sustainable funding for the higher education sector from the Government.

21 May 2002

62   Independent Review Of Higher Education Pay And Conditions. The Stationery Office, 1999. Back

63   Radical Thinking, Creative Solutions: Conference Report. The Wellcome Trust, 2001. Back

64   Review of PhD Research Training: The Student Perspective. The Wellcome Trust, 2000. Back

65   Review of PhD Research Training: The Supervisor Perspective. The Wellcome Trust, 2001. Back

66   Non-Clinical Scientists on Short Term Contracts in Medical Research. The Academy of Medical Sciences, 2002. Back

67   Details available at: Back

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Prepared 20 November 2002