Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 137-139)



SIR GARETH ROBERTS, Author of SET for Success (the Roberts Review), Chairman of the Research Careers Initiative, Chairman of the HEFCE Research Committee and President of Wolfson College, Oxford, examined.

  Chairman: Nice to see you again, Sir Gareth. You have been in front of this Committee before several times. We see you on the circuit quite often. Your name has been taken in vain as the man who has attempted to address this problem and has presented a report to the Government, so I wondered if we could cross-question you on it and I apologise for the lateness of this session.

Mr McWalter

  137. You have heard the line of questioning this afternoon, Sir Gareth. What is your impression of that? Did you feel that there really is a need for even more drastic change than you envisaged in your report following what you have heard this afternoon?
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) I first of all have to say which hat do I have on? I have of course the Chairman of the Research Careers Initiative hat on to a large extent in speaking this afternoon and I do have a pack here which includes the last progress report from the RCI. The final report will come through about October time probably and I would like to say something about the progress that has been made since the initiative was started in 1997. I have also included in the pack some latest information about a major project which I initiated when I was Vice Chancellor in Sheffield, a major HEFCE-funded project of about a quarter of a million pounds. The dissemination of this work will take place on 12 July, next week in fact, so there is also some indication there of the progress that has been made. I think it is fair to say that the RCI group, if I can call it that, has been disappointed—"frustrated" I think is a better word—with the pace and scale of the change. We can monitor to some extent the experiences of the contract researchers by looking at the end of grant questionnaires when the research councils compile them. It did look until about a year ago that, just as the Royal Academy of Engineering has said, it was almost as if we had plateau-ed. A tremendous impact I think in the first two or three years and then we had plateau-ed. I am pleased to say that the very latest figures really show tangible improvement. There are three reasons behind this. One is the dripping tap pressure that the RCI and the hundred co-ordinators that we have now in the universities has applied. The other, and probably the primary, reason is the EC directive that we have heard about this afternoon. That really will have a tangible effect in universities. Thirdly, and, as you probably know, I chair HEFCE's Research Committee, we are adamant that in future we will insist that universities have a human resource strategy in place if they wish to receive their full research grant. As you probably know via the RAE, there is this algorithm where you get 0.1 for a research fellow and 0.15 for a research student. What we are seriously considering is that that component of the QR funding from the funding council should not be awarded to institutions if they cannot demonstrate that they are managing not just contract researchers but young research students, young lecturers, in a good way. I really do feel that that stick from the funding councils will make a tremendous difference, coupled with the EC directive, and, as I say, the rather subtle pressure that has been going on within institutions for two or three years now.

Dr Turner

  138. Do you not think there is a potential problem in universities with the new directive, that they may use it as an excuse to shed people after four years to stop them going on for more than four years because of the potential for redundancy liabilities and so forth?
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) I think most universities have now abandoned that redundancy waiver that we talked about. Certainly the ones that I am associated with have abandoned that some time ago. It was interesting hearing some of the researchers earlier today and I really am disappointed that they have had such a bad experience because I know that there are many of those 39,000 who have really had a good experience and it is a pity you did not hear some of those experiences today. There are in my view great merits in this three trajectory approach that I mention in my report. There are many people who stay on to do research because it is convenient to complete a PhD, for example, but I am referring to people who have been within an institution for a year or two. I think a decision has to be made at that point. Is there a strong likelihood that that student will become a good university lecturer? Is that person better suited to leave the university world and go off to the world of business or industry? Or perhaps is there a special research associate role that they can play within the university? I do not think there has been enough honesty in the system, to be truthful. What you tend to have are principal investigators who have a very competent researcher who is doing some excellent research work in many ways but deep in their hearts I think some of the supervisors know that they are not as good as some of the other potential academics that they have in their groups and I really do feel that we need more honesty in the system and so heads of department, principal investors, need to have these good appraisal meetings with contract researchers, really good heart-to-heart discussions to say, "It does not look as if you really are perhaps quite as good as others", or perhaps, "In your area of research we are not developing that area quite as much as you had hoped".


  139. How would you measure that?
  (Sir Gareth Roberts) I think all universities will have a research strategy within a faculty, within a school. It should be fairly clear the areas in which people want to develop their research. This is particularly true of course in science, engineering and medicine but rather different in the arts and humanities where people tend to dig in deep in their research. I am referring more to the team type approach. We heard about the benefits of size. If you have a large research group I think there is no excuse whatever not to have a certain tier of open ended contract researchers and I have to say I do not like that name. We ought to move to the name "research fellow", I think.

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