Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)

DR JOHN SAWYER, MR MIKE AHERN AND DR CLARE BAMBRA

WEDNESDAY 3 JULY 2002

  Chairman: Can I thank you for coming to help us with this inquiry. There is experience on our side of the table on short-term contracts, some of us have seen them first hand and we know about them. We are very glad you have been through the system, both starting off in the system and having been through it for some time and you have come to help with the inquiry. Can I say we enter this inquiry with the spirit that we would like to do something about it. We think it affects British science and its world ranking so we would like to hear from you first hand what some of the problems are. Can I say we have your background. We do have your academic careers and where you are coming from and so on so you do not have to spend time telling us that. This inquiry is quite short, we have different groups, and you are welcome to stay, obviously. Thank you for agreeing to start off. We have you down as beginning your careers in fact. I will ask Geraldine to ask the first question.

Geraldine Smith

  1. Can I begin by asking you what your own career aspirations are and would it be right to say that most contract research staff want an academic career but also want some teaching and research functions alongside that?
  (Dr Sawyer) My aim, I guess, for my career is to become an academic, and I cannot speak for the others on that. Certainly I would suggest that contract research, whilst it is important to the research side of my career, does not provide the experience that I need to get a further position, and cannot because the funding is to do research.

Chairman

  2. Clare? Can you all just pitch in.
  (Dr Bambra) I did have some teaching experience when I was a PhD student. I came into contract research because I was interested in a project but I did not realise how different it would be from the full-time academic work. Now, even though I have got PhD and teaching experience, I am not able to be involved in that area. I do not know how I can get back into it through being on contracts.
  (Mr Ahern) In my case the focus initially was on the research element but part of the contract was that you are expected to teach. So, having done academic year of teaching, I can see myself wanting to continue along that road.

Geraldine Smith

  3. Would it be right to say you are not very confident you will meet your own career aspirations?
  (Mr Ahern) At this stage for me definitely not. I am not at all feeling positive about the whole situation in terms of developing my career within academia.
  (Dr Bambra) I will meet my career aspirations but I think that will be despite the system that is in place.
  (Dr Sawyer) That would be what I would say, absolutely. It is perseverance and bashing your head at the opportunities until they arrive, that is the only way you can get what you want to do.

Mr Harris

  4. I was going to ask what obstacles you see in your path. It might be more positive to ask what would you like to see changed? What obstacle do you want to see removed from your path so you can pursue the career you want to pursue?
  (Mr Ahern) In my case, for instance, I am currently at the institution where I have been working for 18 months. As from Monday of this week I am on my fourth contract.

  5. How many years?
  (Mr Ahern) Eighteen months. The contract I am on currently runs until the end of August. In terms of planning a career, in terms of wanting to work in a project for at least, say, a year or two years, it is just not possible.
  (Dr Sawyer) For me, as I have said before, what I would like to see is in addition there being some way of having some feeling of continuity at a place. My experience has been that contracts can be renewed and you can continue with the same university, that was in a different country but there is a similar situation here. It is difficult to say I want to plan to stay at a university because I do not know what will happen in a year when my contract is up for renewal. It will make it easier to get into teaching if there are opportunities for me to train in teaching and also to go and do that teaching. I have a different experience from Mike where he can teach, I cannot.

Dr Turner

  6. To Mike Ahern, you seem to have suffered particularly badly with very short contracts and great uncertainty. What impact has this had on your actual work?
  (Mr Ahern) I would argue in the long run, certainly from my own experience and also from colleagues in the institution where I am based, there is definitely an influence on the quality of your work because you are constantly thinking "Will my contract be renewed? What project should I be working on next? Should I be going out actively to seek funds", although the position I am in I would not be able to do that myself anyway. It is pretty demoralising in the long run basically.

  7. Not a positive stimulus?
  (Mr Ahern) Not at all.

Chairman

  8. Did you think about trying for a mortgage?
  (Mr Ahern) I would say at the moment I am fortunate in that I have not got a mortgage or a family but if I did have either I would definitely not be in academia in the present circumstances.

Dr Iddon

  9. Can I ask the three of you whether there appears to be a shortage in these posts at the moment or whether there are people queuing up for them?
  (Dr Sawyer) Sorry?

Chairman

  10. When they advertise them, for example, do they get many answers to the adverts?
  (Dr Bambra) I know my public health department is currently looking for my research staff, they are having a real problem. When I went for my job there were only two or three applicants.
  (Dr Sawyer) There is a shortage of candidates, certainly. I applied for one in the UK and got my first position. I know there are now two other positions in the department available. Certainly there is no shortage of funding. What there is is a shortage of people who want to risk doing a year's work at a place and getting into a career and then having to say "I am sorry, I will have to finish that type of career because now the funding has gone away at this place I will have to move to Zimbabwe" or something, as a stupid example.
  (Mr Ahern) I would add to that, that I do not know specifically about jobs which are advertised but I would argue with the current situation you have a facility where, for instance, post-graduate students are creamed off at the end of their course to work on a short-term contract for six months or 12 months and may go on to stay in academia or if the contract finishes then at the end of the next academic session management have the possibility of taking the next cohort and so on and so on. I think that is a major problem as well with the short term.

Chairman

  11. Do you think it is seductive in the sense that people think it just will not be short term? The fact you are having to think "I am good enough and they will take me on.", if you think about it, you would not take the job on for a year or six months unless you had aspirations and hopes. Are you seduced?
  (Mr Ahern) That is exactly what happened to me. I was taken on when I finished my post-graduate initially for four months but in my own mind it was "well, if I can prove myself I will get another contract" which I did for another four months and then 12 months. As I said, now it is two months because of funding difficulties.

Dr Turner

  12. Do any of you have family responsibilities?
  (Dr Sawyer) I have got a wife.

Dr Iddon

  13. Most undergraduates now are finishing with considerable debt. It costs a lot of money and some have to pay fees. Then you could accumulate more debt as a PhD or MSc student. How important is that in deciding whether somebody takes a post-doctorate place? Does it put you off taking these posts, the debt aspect?
  (Dr Bambra) I think the worry that at the end of two years or however long you have got you may be unemployed or looking for something else is a worry. The reason I am in research is because I enjoy it and that is what I want to do. These are things you have to try and juggle and go out there for something.
  (Dr Sawyer) Certainly for me the term you used it is seductive to stay. I came out with my PhD in Australia after a certain amount of time. I looked around, there were not too many jobs for a PhD in Australia and I was offered a post-doc at my local university, and I am sure it is the same for people here. I had debts. It was an easy job to get started in. Once you have got into that, if you want to stay and make it a career, that is a different idea. At the end of that year, it is still another year, it can only be offered whereas if I had gone into an engineering company, for instance, they would not have put me on a one year's contract just because they only had one year's work for me. They would have said "At the end of that year we will find some other work for him". The university should not be any different, it should be able to plan and it should be able to manage its money in that fashion.
  (Dr Bambra) I think on this case in my contract it says "initially for a period of two years" so there is an implication there that if I am really good or lucky I will get more. I know, also, that the funding for the project is for two years. So there is a carrot aspect to it.

Geraldine Smith

  14. Do you think in the end you might just leave and go and work in the private sector?
  (Dr Sawyer) Done it once before why would I not do it again.

Chairman

  15. What about you, Clare?
  (Dr Bambra) I am really interested in teaching so I could always just teach slightly younger people.

  16. Mike?
  (Mr Ahern) I have worked in the private sector previously as well. Again in terms of the research I do, it is what I want to do but the other aspects of it are becoming big questions so at the moment I am not sure.

Mr Harris

  17. What about the Roberts Review? It said quite a lot about short-term contracts. Do you see it as a shining white charger coming over the hill to solve all your problems or a big fat disappointment?
  (Dr Sawyer) We were talking about this before. I think it pretty much legitimises the status quo. I do not think it changes anything.

Chairman

  18. Clare, have you looked at it?
  (Dr Bambra) I have seen the bit on the trajectories. On the academic one, for example, it seemed to describe what was current practice and did not really have any normative suggestions.
  (Mr Ahern) Yes, I would agree wholeheartedly. I read this last night and that was the one line that I highlighted. I thought "this is exactly what I am doing now, it is no different."

Mr Harris

  19. Just to clarify, you are not optimistic about the way this particular situation is developing? You do not see any great change in your own circumstances as a result of the Roberts Review?
  (Dr Bambra) No.
  (Mr Ahern) Not in my case.
  (Dr Sawyer) No.


 
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