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


APPENDIX 33

Memorandum submitted by Amicus—Manufacturing, Science and Finance Section

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  If the RAE is to continue, we believe that the following requirements should be introduced:

    —  Incentives should be introduced for maintaining infrastructure and the assessment should be expanded to include the level and quality of technical support for higher education research.

    —  Measures should be introduced to improve on the job security and career prospects of research and support staff grades.

    —  Sustained improvements in the quality of research can only be achieved if adequate funding is made available and financial rewards for excellence and improved ratings should be guaranteed.

    —  Incentives for longer term investment need to be provided.

INTRODUCTION

  Manufacturing, Science and Finance (MSF) is a trade union with a large proportion of its membership working in Science, Engineering and Technology across both the public and private sectors. We represent researchers and support staff in higher education and MSF members also work in the National Health Service, Medical Research Council, pharmaceutical industry and industrial research & development establishments.

  We believe that the following areas should be considered when investigating the effectiveness of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) on UK research:

    (i)  Provision of adequate support staff and infrastructure

    (ii)  Career security for research staff

    (iii)  The Quality of University Based Research

    (iv)  The ability to provide for long term investment

PROVISION OF ADEQUATE SUPPORT STAFF AND INFRASTRUCTURE

  The provision of adequate infrastructure, equipment, and support services is essential to world-class research.

  The preliminary findings of a consultation paper commissioned by the Office of Science and Technology and Higher Education Funding Councils in September 20011 concluded that a large number of institutions needed to improve on space, equipment and technical support in order to carry out leading edge research and attract external funding.

  A recent Royal Society report2 also cast doubt on the quality of technical support and referred to the need for universities to improve technical support by reversing the cut backs in highly skilled technicians and reducing the number of short term contracts (currently 26 per cent of technicians are on short term contracts—source: the Bett Report).

  This current situation has been brought about by progressive under funding over a number of years, this is largely due to three factors:

    —  The increase in research activity encouraged by the RAE has not been matched by increases in funding from the Research Councils and research projects sponsored by medical charities do not cover infrastructure and support service costs.

    —  The true support costs associated with a research project are often not claimed due to a widespread perception amongst researchers that only the cheapest grants will be successful in winning funds.

    —  In order to achieve improved RAE ratings, departments have been under considerable pressure to use funds awarded as indirect costs to increase research activity instead of maintaining infrastructure and support services.

  If the RAE is to continue, incentives should be introduced for maintaining infrastructure and the assessment should be expanded to include the level and quality of technical support for higher education research.

CAREER SECURITY FOR RESEARCH STAFF

  An unacceptably high proportion of researchers and technical staff are employed on fixed-term contracts and it is not unusual in the higher education sector for contract research staff to spend their entire career with the uncertainty of future funding and employment hanging over them. High levels of stress are prevalent and many skilled support staff and talented researchers have been driven through either lack of funding or health concerns to leave research.

  Research assistants are increasingly required to carry out the work of technical grades due to the reduction in support staff numbers leading to an inefficient use of research time, a waste or poor usage of often expensive equipment, and work intensification.

  Security of employment is also important in scientific terms because this brings about continuity and the development of teamworking between scientific workers that has been a proven vital ingredient of successful research programmes.

  Contract research staff are employed by Higher Education Institutions on funds provided by the Research Councils and neither accepts responsibility for providing a degree of employment security.

  We welcome the introduction of the legislation on Short-Term Contract Staff which will place a ceiling on the number of years a member of staff may be employed on short-term contracts, but we are concerned that in the absence of secure funding there will still be the potential for abuse eg short breaks in employment.

  The Bett Report also referred to the need to improve the salaries and career prospects of university technicians. Attempts by institutions to address concerns regarding the careers of scientific workers have concentrated on academic grades, further downgrading the contribution of technical grades.

  We believe that if the RAE is to continue, measures must be introduced to improve on the job security and career prospects of research and support staff grades.

THE QUALITY OF UNIVERSITY BASED RESEARCH

  The RAE has been successful as an incentive to increased research activity in the UK. However, this has been achieved in part by the use of funds transferred to the Research Councils in 1992 and originally intended to finance research support services.

  Valuable research time is lost due to the administration involved in preparing grant submissions and evaluating research work.

  We are also concerned that the system discriminates against those departments and institutions attempting to build a research reputation. A cyclic process is emerging whereby the RAE determines the amount of research funding from other bodies and the research carried out with this funding determines the next RAE.

  Sustained improvements in the quality of research can only be achieved if adequate funding is made available and if the RAE is to continue, financial rewards for excellence and improved ratings should be guaranteed.

THE ABILITY TO PROVIDE FOR LONG-TERM INVESTMENT

  The RAE has encouraged institutions to focus on short-term planning, but there is also a need to be able to plan for longer term research programmes than Research Council grants currently provide for.

  The lack of research funds over recent years has forced research groups and institutions to make short-term decisions about funding at the expense of long-term planning. As a result the jobs of many technical and support staff were axed and valuable skills lost that will be very expensive to replace.

  If the RAE is to continue, an incentive for longer term investment needs to be provided.

REFERENCES

  1 Under-Investment in University Research Infrastructure Consultation Paper J M Consulting Ltd.

  2 Technical and Research Support in the Modern Laboratory Royal Society

18 January 2002



 
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