Memorandum submitted by Professor A D
May and Dr S M Grant-Muller, Institute for Transport Studies,
University of Leeds
1. This memorandum is submitted in response
to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee's request
for evidence for its Inquiry into Short Term Research Contracts
in Science and Engineering. It is based on our own experience
in managing research staff development in the Institute for Transport
Studies. Because our arrangements differ from those elsewhere
in the University of Leeds, we have decided to submit our own
evidence, with the full support of the University.
2. The Institute for Transport Studies is
the largest research group in transport in the UK, and one of
the largest in Europe, and has obtained the highest grade in each
of the 1992, 1996 and 2001 Research Assessment Exercises. We have
a total of over 60 staff, of whom 45 are on temporary contracts.
These include all but one of our 35 research staff. However, we
have put considerable effort, over the last decade, into improving
the security of employment of our research staff, by placing all
who have been with us for over two years on rolling contracts,
and by carrying out annual reviews of all staff to help them in
the development of their careers. These arrangements, which are
described more fully in the Annex, have enabled us to achieve
very high levels of staff retention, and a core team of senior
researchers who contribute much to the development of our research
programme. At the same time we have maintained a healthy exchange
of staff joining us from, and leaving us for, posts in academia,
consultancy and government. We offer this evidence in the hope
that others can benefit from our experience.
3. We address each of the Committee's questions
in the following paragraphs. We then provide a set of recommendations
for the Committee's consideration. We explain our arrangements
more fully in an annex. We would be very willing to expand on
these points in oral evidence if called upon to do so.
4. Does the preponderance of short-term research
contracts really matter? Why?
The most common model is one in which a member
of research staff is appointed to work on a specific research
project, with a contract which ends when project funding ceases.
This model has a number of disadvantages. It can take some time
to find suitable recruits. There can be considerable financial
costs in terms of advertising and assessing candidates and there
may also be substantial delays in the start date of projects.
It also leads to the possibility of compromising the timeliness
of the research, particularly for shorter projects. Once recruited,
staff will require training in specific research skills, but departments
may be reluctant to provide generic training for temporary staff.
As short-term contract staff would rarely have been involved in
the development of the concept and methodology of the project,
they have a lower sense of ownership of the research, with the
implications that has for the project as a whole. During their
time in the department, they may feel less inclined to become
integrated into the general life of the department through a sense
of just passing through. They are likely to spend the last few
crucial months of the project seeking new employment, and are
likely to have relatively little interest in further development
of the line of research. It is not uncommon for research staff
to seize an opportunity for employment elsewhere and leave the
project before its completion. This is unsatisfactory for the
researcher who may miss the opportunity to publish or disseminate
and for the department who face the difficulties of finding suitable
staff for a few months to bring the project to its conclusion.
Overall, the current system represents the worst of all worlds,
in that it involves significant expense in recruiting and training
staff who frequently feel demoralised and undervalued, and often
leave just at the point where they are becoming more productive.
5. Our own model of rolling contracts overcomes
many of these problems. We have a pool of researchers whom we
train, and can employ flexibly on a range of projects according
to their skills and interests. They will be employed beyond the
duration of the project, and can thus contribute fully to its
completion. Moreover, they have a more immediate interest in the
dissemination and further development of the research programme.
As a result we now have a core team of some 13 research staff
on RAII, and others aspiring to that level, all of whom generate
research proposals and manage research projects in their own right.
We actively encourage knowledge transfer and mentoring by more
senior research staff to the benefit and support of those on more
junior grades. There is still the disadvantage that research staff
do not have as much job security as academic staff, and may consider
that they are treated differently. We are conscious of this, and
try to remove the boundaries between categories of staff where
possible. We are also planning to make posts on RAII permanent.
6. What are the implications for researchers
and their careers?
As noted above, research staff with purely fixed
term contracts face an uncertain future, and are likely to be
diverted from effective career planning by the quest for suitable
employment. They may well also gain less experience from the individual
research project as a result. Short-term contract staff are unlikely
to be offered positions of responsibility that might otherwise
broaden their experience. Faced with limited resources, some departments
may not feel able to offer the same level of training, opportunities
and investment in the careers of short-term staff that they offer
permanent staff, despite the advances offered by the Concordat.
After a series of short-term contracts, possibly in different
universities or departments, the possibility exists that some
contract staff will emerge with only a minimal level of broader
personal development and not necessarily equipped for a future
career outside academia. This is a concern as it is clear that
there are far fewer traditional academic posts than there are
contract research staff, and thus the majority must look for career
paths elsewhere. It is therefore important that their skills are
developed with a range of possible future employment in mind.
We do this in the Institute in two ways, by making available a
career path in research for those with aspirations to develop
and lead high quality research programmes, and by maintaining
strong links with the consultancy profession, which is the most
common alternative source of employment for our staff. In support
of both routes, staff are encouraged to obtain broader transferable
skills, such as those in project management or developing proposals
and tenders. The research career path enables progression through
the research grades, while having opportunities for teaching and
administration if the researcher wishes. It also permits transfer
to the lecturer grades at any stage if considered appropriate.
Many of our senior staff, including our current Director of Research,
have progressed through this route.
7. Is there evidence that the present situation
causes good researchers to leave?
This is covered in part above. The future uncertainties
caused through short-term contracts have without doubt an effect
on the morale of staff and evidence on this has been collected
and published over a number of years through the AUT. Not only
does poor morale affect the decision of staff on whether to continue
in academic life in any capacity, it affects other aspects of
their lives too. Both male and female staff face difficult life-choices
in terms of planning or expanding their family when employment
is so insecure. Added to this, difficulties in securing mortgages
and insurance experienced by some staff can be a final straw causing
some to leave a research career for secure but less challenging
employment elsewhere. Through our rolling contract arrangements
in the Institute we have achieved a very high level of retention;
even with our high number of research staff our total staff turnover
rate is well under 10 per cent pa. Inevitably from time to time
good researchers leave us for different career paths. While this
can have detrimental impacts on specific research projects in
the short term it is an accepted part of our process. We see ourselves
as training researchers for careers with us or elsewhere, and
those who leave us should take with them a good training in research
together with a broader range of transferable skills.
8. What would be the right balance between
contract and permanent research staff in universities and research
As part of this question, it may also be useful
to reflect on what the balance between senior and junior research
staff in Universities could most beneficially be. This is linked
to an appropriate balance in contract and permanent staff and
to the issue of career development for researchers as a whole.
Researchers at Grade II and above have an academic maturity and
range of broader skills that enable them to make substantial contributions
to the life and future success of the Institution. We are currently
aiming for a situation in which around 40 per cent of our staff,
rather than the current 75 per cent, are on temporary contracts,
with the majority of these being rolling rather than fixed term
contracts. The latter will be limited to the junior grades and
probationary periods on higher grades, and will be justified on
the basis that those on these grades will be in the earlier stages
of career development when they, and we, need to explore their
appropriateness for a career in research. The main constraints
in the past on moving to this balance have been financial uncertainty
and inflexibility in reducing staff numbers in periods of financial
difficulty. Both of these are now being overcome. A further consideration
is the possibility that research staff may become less productive
at a later stage in their careers, but that it will prove difficult
to encourage them to change their role. This is a risk, but it
is no greater a risk than with permanent academic or administrative
staff, and effective staff development strategies should do much
to minimise the risk.
9. Have the Concordat and the Research Careers
Initiative made any difference?
The University of Leeds made a major input to
the development of both, and its advice was based to a significant
extent on good practice in the Institute. We welcome both as ways
of disseminating good practice, and we have learnt something ourselves
in enhancing our approach to training. It is very clear that some
departments and universities have had to be reminded of their
responsibilities to contract staff. The Concordat and Initiative
have contributed usefully to this. However, we do have concerns
that they both envisage research posts as remaining temporary.
10. How should policy move forward?
Whilst recognising the constraints of finance
and other considerations, it is clear that policy can move forward
both at the level of the Institution and within individual departments.
We are clear as to the policy which we wish to adopt, and there
are now few barriers to our doing so. We would like to see others
being actively encouraged to adopt the use of rolling contracts,
and to move towards a greater proportion of permanent staff. Indeed,
we see an increasing case for breaking down the barriers between
academic and research staff, and having one form of contract for
all those who justify permanent posts. Such changes need, of course,
to be coupled with effective staff development programmes at both
departmental and University levels. The European Directive will
to some extent have an impact on this. It is of crucial importance
that it is used to facilitate such changes, rather than to impose
a ban on all temporary contracts of more than a specified duration.
The latter approach, which some universities used to their own
detriment in the 1980s, would simply deter researchers who were
taking longer to develop their careers from staying in the profession.
11. In the meantime, there is one particular
area in which we would like to see further change. Much of our
research is funded by EPSRC and, as will be clear from the above,
much of it is generated by our more senior research staff. Yet
EPSRC continues to refuse to allow them to be named on its grants
if any part of their salary is met from EPSRC funds. We have argued
for some time that experience in developing and managing research
projects should be a key element in the career development of
research staff, and have pressed EPSRC at least to permit time
spent managing a project, and hence gaining this experience, to
be funded by them. As yet we have been unable to obtain any change
in their policy, and our research staff are left either having
to seek support from elsewhere for their research, or to suffer
the indignity of having to get a member of University funded staff
to submit the proposal on their behalf.
Based on our experience, as outlined above,
we offer the following recommendations.
(i) Universities, and leading research groups,
need to establish a career route for those who will specialise
in research conduct, management and leadership.
(ii) Each leading research group should assess
its needs for staff numbers on this career route and at different
grades within it.
(iii) Universities and departments should
counsel all new appointees to research posts on the career options
available to them and assist them in developing skills appropriate
to their preferred options. Counselling should continue on at
least an annual basis.
(iv) After a period of probation, junior
research staff should be placed on rolling contracts, in which
the University assumes a greater proportion of the risk that research
income may not be maintained, and research staff appreciate that
they can contribute to securing their own future.
(v) Where possible, more senior posts (on
RAII and above) should be made permanent, while accepting that
redeployment may be necessary if research income falls significantly.
(vi) All departments which aspire to, or
have achieved, grades 5 and 5* in the Research Assessment Exercise
should be expected to adopt approaches similar to those set out
in (i) to (v) above.
(vii) Research Councils and Charities should
recognise the greater benefit to be gained from increased employment
security by moving from project to programme funding wherever
(viii) EPSRC in particular should recognise
that research grant generation and management are key elements
of career development, and that it is appropriate for them to
finance the time of research staff in managing grants which they
themselves have secured.