Memorandum submitted by the Joseph Rowntree
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation spends around
£7 million a year on research and development projects concerned
with aspects of social policy. The focus of the work is promoting
knowledge-based change rather than the pursuit of knowledge
for its own sake. Much of the research that it funds is carried
out within University departments by staff on short-term contracts.
The Foundation's view is that the employment
contract for researchers should not be different from that of
University teaching staff. The reason for researchers being on
short-term contracts and for teaching staff having tenured positions
is historical. Tenure meant that it was almost impossible for
a member of staff to be given notice. The funding available for
teaching staff was reasonably stable in the past while funding
for research was "soft money". Many HEFCE-funded staff
are now on more flexible contracts that allow for redundancy and
there are some moves within Universities for staff to be given
notice if their performance is not good enough. The funds available
to Universities from HEFCE are now rather less stable from year
to year. At the same time, while much research funding continues
to be on a project basis, the volume of funds for research has
increased and at an aggregate level is fairly stable at the institutional
level. The gulf between the context of teaching and research is
now much less and the rationale for treating different categories
of staff so differently therefore no longer holds.
The Foundation's experience suggests that there
may well be differences between different disciplines, and particularly
between the world of applied social policy and the experimental
sciences, in the relationship between research and teaching. There
are a number of well respected, established research units within
the social policy field which are funded almost entirely by external
money and are run relatively independently of the teaching and
research being carried out by HEFCE-funded staff. A good proportion
of staff within these units wish to pursue a career in research.
They may want to do some teaching but they do not want teaching
to become their primary focus. Equally there are HEFCE funded
staff who might like to have time away from teaching to carry
out some research, but who are not willing to lose the security
of their career post. The differences in the contractual basis
of full-time researchers and HEFCE funded staff removes the possibility
of staff moving from one activity to another, and the flexibility
for individuals to be able to choose a balance between teaching
and research. The situation within the physical and laboratory
based sciences may well be different. I understand that many of
the staff are post doctoral researchers who see working in this
environment as short-term and a stepping stone to a teaching career.
It is the Foundation's view that employing research
staff on short-term contracts is a substitute for good management,
and that good management is what researchers need. Our hope is
that Universities will use the EU Directive on fixed term working
positivelyto provide more security for, and make better
use of the skills and knowledge of researchersrather than
as a further excuse to avoid addressing this issue.
In the context of this broad view that employing
research staff on short-term contracts should be the exception
rather than the rule, the Foundation's view on the specific questions
Question A. Does the preponderance of short-term
contracts really matter?
Short-term contracts are bad for researchers
because they make a career in University research a rather unattractive
option (this is picked up in Question b). They are bad for funders
in that many of the people who have the potential to be excellent
researchers are not going into the higher education sector in
the first place. Those that do will end up in teaching, where
there are dependable jobs (especially those with family responsibilities,
who need a reliable income). So funders are probably not getting
the best researchers working on their projects. In addition, the
attention of staff during the last few months of a contract is
often on getting another job/contract, rather than satisfactorily
completing the project. Sometimes a project is never completed
satisfactorily because the contract researcher with the most knowledge
has left before the end. Even if someone stays to the end of a
contract the potential of the work may not be exploited to the
full. Within our relatively relaxed JRF study timeframes, data
sets are often seriously under-utilised. Within Government, the
situation must be much worse.
Short-term contracts are also bad for society
in terms of the development of knowledge, as people move on rather
than build areas of expertisethe need to move from one
contract to the next means that contract researchers often have
to do a very wide range of work.
Question B. What are the implications for
researchers and their careers?
The implications for researchers are pretty
bleakthere is simply no career structure for them. Nor
are contract researchers well paid, to compensate for this insecurity.
As indicated above, there is no justification for this. Universities
have been engaged in research for a very long time (and are often
earning a considerable amount of money out of it) and yet there
has often been no attempt whatsoever to support research units/teams
and create permanent posts. As a consequence, many good researchers
are forced into full-time teaching against their will. Others
attempt to juggle heavy teaching loads with some sort of research
outputbut this is usually very stressful and the outputs
suffer. Those that stay in research are often extraordinarily
underrated within their organisationsif they're very busy
turning around contracts, they often fail to do the academic bit
(journal papers, working on an "international reputation")
and don't get the chairs. There's a desperate need for the traditional
Universities (the worst offenders by far) to wake up and recognise
research as a valuable part of what they do. Given their recalcitrance
in this regard, it may well take some dedicated financial input
to get them to set up tenured research posts.
Question C. Is there evidence that the present
situation causes good researchers to leave?
The Foundation does not have access to quantitative
evidence of this but there are a number of cases known to us of
good researchers moving into teaching or secure jobs managing
research within Government Departments, at least in part because
of the lack of a research career. There is a considerable shortage
of mature, experienced researchers capable of managing a research
team or complex projects. There are also beginning to be problems
of recruitment at more junior levels.
Question D. What would be the right balance
between contract and permanent research staff in universities
and research institutions?
The Foundation does not consider that "the
right balance" is a meaningful question. Almost all staff
should be on the same terms of employmentnot time limited
but allowing for the possibility of redundancy or being given
notice because of poor performance. (There may be a case for the
first contract to be short-term as a form of extended probation,
but even this is not necessary if the member of staff is being
Question E. Has the Concordat and the Research
Careers Initiative made any difference?
The Concordat is very weak. It maintains a position
of putting the onus for building a career on the individualthe
party with the least powerrather than making the employer
responsible for making proper use of human resources. It has had
a slight effect of making researchers more visible as a group
but has not, in our view, changed the power balances. It is too
early to say whether the RCI has had any effect across the board.
Question F. How should policy move forward?
The government needs to ensure that the funding
councils move to a perspective of investing in research and researchers,
not exploiting them. There should also be a commitment that all
staff within Universities be employed on the same terms and conditions,
except in exceptional circumstances.
13 June 2002