Examination of Witness (Questions 140-159)|
WEDNESDAY 3 JULY 2002
140. Like the Royal Society Research Fellows
of which we have heard much in the last few months. If everybody
was a Royal Society Research Fellow I am sure we would be happy.
(Sir Gareth Roberts) If I can come back to the three
trajectories approach, as you know, in the report I have suggested
there should be about a thousand new equivalents to the Royal
Society fellowship where a couple of years into one a university
needs to say, "Yes, we will take that person on on a permanent
basis". One of the young researchers who met you earlier
was, I think, wrong about the research associate scheme. In my
report I am recommending that they be put on permanent contracts,
not temporary contracts. With regard to the industrial trajectory,
what is important for these people is to get the right training.
What is the point of them demonstrating in research labs or teaching
labs in universities if they are not going to stay on in the university?
Far better to get work experience and some real training, and
so one of the key recommendations in my report is that, whichever
category you want to find yourself in, there should be adequate
training there either for an academic career or for a career outside
academe. It is so important that people develop those additional
skills that are required because there is no doubt, when I went
out to industry and business, that they were complaining quite
a lot about the quality of our PhDs and so on, not so much because
of the subject skills they had but because of those generic skills
which they did not possess.
141. One of the witnesses earlier described
your research associates as technicians, albeit technicians with
doctorates. Is that a description you recognise?
(Sir Gareth Roberts) Absolutely not. You will not
find that in my report. It says that there is a group of contract
researchers who want to continue with a research career and do
not want to pursue an academic career. This track would principally
apply to those who develop specialist knowledge of specific research
equipment or methodologies or provide an ongoing support enabling
function with a research group. I go on to say that the emphasis
here would be on the provision of permanent contracts and so on.
These people are very often crucial people in a research group,
these highly skilled people. I think they need to be flexible
in order that they can change their area of research perhaps over
their career. These are permanent contracts. There are many people
on these positions now. I am just suggesting that there should
142. In my university we used to call those
people research technicians. I am a chemist and they used to run
NMR instruments, mass spectrometers, they were very valued people
but they were still called technicians, so I beg to differ there.
(Sir Gareth Roberts) In my university they differ.
In Sheffield, where I did have some responsibility, these people
moved up on a parallel track and they could eventually become
readers, become professors and have exactly the same opportunities
to reach a chair status.
143. On this track approach that you have mentioned
just now, if we were listening to you carefully you seem to be
suggesting that the very best contract researchers should be kept
on by universities, and often are, of course.
(Sir Gareth Roberts) No, no, I have not said that.
144. And others leak out into industry and it
is suggested industry do not get the cream when they need the
(Sir Gareth Roberts) Your first supposition was wrong.
I did not mean that at all. Some people have a tremendous research
gift but perhaps their communication and other skills are not
well suited for academe. Others do have all those features. What
I have tried to pull out in my report is that there are some excellent
careers outside academe and I think perhaps some of the careers
advice that people have could be improved a great deal.
145. In our debate on the RAE last week I was
being told by colleagues in the House, and a large number of MPs
came to that debate, that many academics are useless at teaching
too but they are kept on and everybody has had dreadful lectures.
I have given some dreadful lectures in my time too; we all do,
but I would not say I would sack myself. Why should you have one
criterion for lecturers because they are something else and another
for these very good people doing research and probably some of
them are good teachers too? They probably teach better than some
of the academics but they do not get the chance to do it.
(Sir Gareth Roberts) What you say is very true about
some of the lecturers in the British university system, but I
think with the younger ones who come through, and again I am speaking
from experience in Sheffield in particular, we insisted that people,
as well as developing their research, also took an MEd while they
were doing their probationary period, so they did end up being
skilled teachers, one hoped, as well as being very good researchers.
What we are short of in this country is sufficient of these people,
these gifted researchers, the gifted academics. We want to encourage
more people to go into those professions.
146. Can I ask you if you think the research
councils have done enough themselves to tackle the problems that
we have been discussing this afternoon? After all, they have been
around a long time.
(Sir Gareth Roberts) The research councils have taken
the view that universities are managing the staff and not them.
The Wellcome Foundation on the other hand are an excellent exemplar.
You will not find many people funded by Wellcome who are complaining
too much. They really have taken more seriously their obligations
in terms of funding students and staff. I would like to think
that we, via the RCI recommendations, can build on the type of
work that the Wellcome people have done and make sure that we
do not have the sorts of stories that you have heard about this
afternoon. It really is disgraceful that people are on these ultra
short contracts. There has to be a point where, after a couple
of years, in which there have been regular appraisals, people
recognise their strengths and weaknesses and decisions have to
be made about what is best for an individual. Are they best suited
for academic work? As I say, we need more honesty in the system
and I am not sure that principal investigators have always been
that honest with their staff.
147. You have heard me say earlier that I believe,
and I think it is pretty apparent, that the research assessment
exercise is concentrating more and more on research in fewer and
fewer universities and what I call the middle of the league universities
are the ones that are suffering the most, the ones with four and
especially of course the bottom, the 3A and 3B grades. I put it
to you that the research assessment exercise has seriously disadvantaged
contract research staff because, as the research has been concentrated
in those fewer and fewer universities, lots of departments have
closedthis is the collateral damage we are talking about
in our report on the research assessment exerciseand thereby
short term contracts have been the first to go in a lot of universities
in the middle of the league who have been put under pressure.
Would you agree with that?
(Sir Gareth Roberts) As you may know, I have been
asked to conduct a review of the research assessment exercise.
Dr Iddon: That was why I asked the question.
148. It was interestingthat was the day
before our debate. Great influence, you see.
(Sir Gareth Roberts) What I would agree with is that
the biggest fault with the present RAE, the one that has just
gone, is that it has not rewarded the quality of supervision of
people. The human dimension has effectively been ignored. You
know you get your 0.15 or your 0.1 added to the volume count irrespective
of how well you manage people. I think that is wrong and I am
absolutely positive that in the next RAE or before then in fact
the funding councils will have a code of practice in place not
just with contract researchers but for the way young PhD students
are looked after, how young lecturers are looked after; otherwise
there will be a financial penalty. Money talks and I really do
feel that that more than anything will transform the situation.
149. I was struck by what you said about ultra-short
contracts. I am struggling to conceive of any circumstances where
it makes sense for somebody to be put on a contract of one month
or two months or anything less than six months, I have to say.
Nobody sensibly can employ somebody at this level of expertise
for that period of time. I am really struggling to find how it
is worthwhile a department or the individual entering into contracts
of that kind.
(Sir Gareth Roberts) There is one very good reason
and that is that very often PhD students do not complete their
PhD in the three years or four years that they have. Very often
it suits a person to be able to stay on for another few months
to complete the writing up of their thesis, but otherwise I agree
with you. It just does not make sense.
150. Those are not the circumstances we heard
(Sir Gareth Roberts) But I am sure if you analysed
a large majority of people, certainly in my experience, they all
have much longer contracts than that.
151. The average is about three years, do you
(Sir Gareth Roberts) I am not sure about three years
but certainly two, certainly in the research groups I have worked
in in about six different universities. Certainly I have not recruited
anybody on a month contract ever. The large majority are on much
152. We have also heard today that although
someone may be employed on a two-year contract they will not get
two years' real research work out of that because they will be
distracted by trying to find either the next contract or having
to write research proposals for their own funding, so with a bit
of luck they might get a year's real work out of the one or two-year
contract and then they might move on to a different field and
start all over again. It seems to be rather inefficient. Since
the short-term contract worker is doing so much of British science
at the moment, are we not building in an inefficiency factor if
you like in British science which, if it got any worse, would
threaten its overall quality?
(Sir Gareth Roberts) This country is unique in the
large number of contract researchers it has. If you go to, say,
Scandinavia, there are virtually no contract researchers at all.
The reason for that is that they have not seen the demise of the
corporate research lab as we have in this country. Just as the
ICIs and GECs of this world have reduced their corporate research
labs we have seen the numbers of contract researchers increase
in universities. In other countries their investment in R&D
from industry is at least double our investment in this country.
I personally would like to see rather more R&D spend in industry
in this country. Also, because of the funding formula with the
RAE, that has encouraged universities to invest in numbers of
people at the expense of infrastructure. I am absolutely sure
that when the comprehensive spending review statement comes through
shortly we will find that universities will perhaps be told, "Look;
we will help you recover the present situation over the next five
or six years, but you really must get your house in order. You
must not neglect infrastructure in future", and this may
well mean a reduction in the overall number of contract researchers.
I would like to think as the numbers perhaps shrink in university,
the numbers doing research in industry will build up and so the
actual numbers will stay much the same.
153. Can you suggest any instrument which the
Government could use to encourage that increase in industrial
(Sir Gareth Roberts) Absolutely. Some of the recommendations
in my report are aimed at the regional development of England
in particular. I think there are schemes where we could have industry,
Government and universities working together in regions where
we have teams of contract researchersresearch fellows,
I must start calling themwho really are working to satisfy
the economic strategy of the regions. There are regional approaches
to all this although research obviously is an international activity
if you are doing it right.
154. The Chancellor fortunately has made some
positive comments about your report. Do you think we are going
to get enough money to fund your recommendations and even have
you attempted to cost the recommendations in your report?
(Sir Gareth Roberts) I was not asked to cost the recommendations.
Clearly we are talking about three or four billion probably, but
remember I have got some deadlines that are as far out as 2010.
Just as in the cost-cutting review of research, it is going to
take probably another six or seven years for us to really get
our act together in this country to bring us to where we were
in funding terms and our support of science and engineering 30
years ago, so although three or four billion pounds sounds a lot
of money, stretched out over seven years or so I think it is affordable.
One of the key priorities of course is trying to fund that gap
in the RAE and I am reasonably confident that the Treasury will
have the common sense to see that that needs to be done so that
this funding blip will just be for a year and from 2003/2004 onwards
we will be able to support the RAE grades in full.
155. I hope so.
(Sir Gareth Roberts) So do I.
156. The exam season in universities has just
passed. Contrast the attitudes of the AUT and NATFHE and the work
they have done on this issue as against Universities UK. Do you
think there has been a different activity level there?
(Sir Gareth Roberts) To be fair to Universities UK,
they were one of the signatories of the Concordat in 1997 and
so we have been working together with them and the funding councils
and the research councils, so they have seen their contribution
as coming via RCI. That said, I think they, like us, are frustrated
that we cannot do more. I really do believe, you know, that the
secret is the EC directive making sure that universities do comply
by that and having the funding councils having this stick that
says, "If you do not manage staff properly there will be
a penalty". I would like to see UUK and others this autumn
signing up to a new Concordat. By then we will have the results
of the Sheffield project. I have seen the results. They really
are good in terms of a code of practice for how contract researchers
should be managed in terms of appraisals and skills experience
and this kind of thing. That will all be available on the web
for everybody to see. We are going to have a very different picture
this autumn and I think Concordat mark two is the way forward
and I am very hopeful that we will get there.
157. Do you think that we will be able to stand
in front of the first group we had today and say, "Your jobs
(Sir Gareth Roberts) I am trying to remember which
was the first group you had.
158. The ones who had just started and were
(Sir Gareth Roberts) I have to say that, although
those people were speaking the truth and giving their real experiences,
I could have found for you nine people who really were quite content
with their experience as contract researchers.
159. Presumably you have talked to them in your
(Sir Gareth Roberts) I did, indeed.