Memorandum submitted by the Project Scientist
Voice Committee (PSVC), John Innes Centre
The evidence presented here is the collation
of evidence from members of the Project Scientist Voice Committee
(PSVC) at the John Innes Centre (JIC), and the Project Scientists
(PS) in the departments that they represent. Where possible the
facts are drawn from the results of a survey of all PS on site
in September 2000, but for obvious reasons some of the views represented
here can only be supported by anecdotal evidence. Survey results
are from 63 respondents, which represented a 50 per cent rate
of questionnaire return.
1. Does the preponderance of short-term contracts
really matter? Why?
(i) The PSVC felt that this situation did
matter and indeed changed fundamentally the way that science was
carried out at the JIC. This is due to a mixture of effects that
short-term contracts have on the science and on the scientists.
The effects on the scientists will be discussed in the next question.
Short-term contracts for PS affect the projects on which they
are working largely due to the lack of security that they feel
as a project comes to an end.
(ii) The PS survey found that 18 per cent
of those questioned had a future contract arranged, despite having
an average of 12 months remaining on their existing JIC contract.
Of those 84 per cent were leaving JIC and 17 per cent were leaving
(iii) Of those remaining, the PS survey
showed that only one person (2 per cent) planned not to look for
a new job until the end of their current contract. 46 per cent
were looking an average of 12 months before their contracts finished,
and a further 40 per cent were constantly looking for another
job. Looking for new jobs not only takes time, but also distracts
the PS from their research and indeed may alter their attitude
towards it if they know they are leaving. This situation also
means that many projects are left with six months or more remaining
with no PS to work on them. The Institute then has to bear the
cost of recruiting a new PS and training them to complete the
project. It is the view of the PSVC that PS employed on these
very short contracts are less likely to be highly committed to
the project as they are likely to be doing it to fill in time
between contracts and will undoubtedly be looking for their next
(iv) The committee feels that this is damaging
to the individual projects and results in far less "value
for money" out of the scientists involved and ultimately
less work done for the funding bodies.
(v) It is our understanding that Julia Goodfellow
views the contribution of Institutes to British science to be
to carry out longer term research to meet the mission of the individual
institute, as opposed to the shorter term, "inquiry driven"
science at Universities. The director of the JIC has been keen
to free up money to allow groups with promising projects to apply
for central money to allow them to continue past their grant deadline
or respond to rapidly emerging science. This may help the science,
but certainly does not help the security of the PS and therefore
the problems of resignation as stated above are likely to be exacerbated.
(vi) The system for gaining tenure track
or permanent positions at the JIC (ie getting out of the "contract
trap") is primarily publication-based. It is understood by
the committee that it is desirable to get the best science into
institutes such as the JIC, but we have reservations about the
future implications of this preference. Six years' post-doctoral
experience resulting in a burgeoning scientific career and good
publication record will only be possible for scientists wholly
committed to their research and paper-writing. If no weight is
given to those who show other skills such as management and non-scientific
communication, the committee fears that the resulting group leaders
may not be good at managing the future of science and that this
problem will then be propagated to the next generation of scientists.
Bad management of staff leads to poor productivity in a research
group, no matter how brilliant the group leader. It will also
certainly not lead to an ethos of training for, and advice in,
alternative careers, as such group leaders will have no experience
in such areas.
2. What are the implications for researchers
and their careers?
(i) It should be stated that the present
system does encourage the experiencing of a variety of research
laboratories, which can be good for a PS's personal development.
However, in a subject such as crop science where the timing of
scientific discovery is determined by the length of seasonal trials,
such short contracts can be detrimental to career advancement
as often there is not enough time to complete a piece of work.
(ii) The implications for PS on short-term
contracts are far-reaching. The lack of security of contract work
leads to a number of problems. Of those surveyed 0 per cent of
PS wanted their next job to be that of a research assistant. However,
at the JIC there are a growing number of PhD scientists applying
for and holding such jobs. The 23 per cent of PS who said they
would take a research assistant post in order to stay at the JIC
suggest that a pay cut and permanence is preferable to higher
pay and a contract if there is a mortgage to pay or the scientist
has a family/spouse who would not wish to move at the end of a
contract. This situation may be good for the institute as they
will get the same level of expertise for less money, but is extremely
bad for graduate scientists who will be pushed out of such jobs.
(iii) There is a perceived assumption that
the forced mobility of contract work is not a problem if a PS
is "committed to their science". However, with multiple
income families now the norm amongst PS at the JIC, and as the
PS will often be the lower paid partner of a couple, this assumption
cannot hold true unless the PS is single and has no dependants
(leading to a further impoverishment of character types attaining
more senior positions, see 1(vi)). Forced mobility due to the
movement of a group leader is also a major issue for a PS on a
contract. Is it sensible to move for the remaining six months
of the contract when there is no security of a new job at the
end of it?
(iv) The lack of security offered by contract
work has repercussions throughout the life of the PS. Several
PS have experienced difficulties in obtaining mortgages due to
the short lengths of their contract. More worryingly, although
the average age of PS at the JIC is 33, almost none of them have
children. This (and other data, eg only 7 per cent of PS have
ever taken a career break) suggests that women in science are
delaying having a family, and the committee suggests that this
is due to a lack of security during their twenties. It is also
known that several fellowships do not pay for maternity leave,
and others will not pay maternity until you return to work. This
creates similar loss of productivity to the projects as outlined
in section 3(ii), as the group leader cannot fill a maternity
position if the person is returning, and yet many will leave once
the conditions have been satisfied, leaving the project lacking
a scientist once more.
(v) Lack of career progression or trajectory.
The committee fears that the contract system is a good excuse
for PS not having a career structure. Progression is only seen
as possible by changing project and contract. Scientific merit
promotions within contracts are extremely rare with only one example
of such a promotion being known out of all of the present PS at
the JIC. This is made worse by the present two-year deadline for
the promotion proposal to be accepted. It is highly unlikely that
promotion will be seen as appropriate less than a year into a
contract (if it is, then the job was graded incorrectly), and
so once again the PS is trapped into only being able to move up
by changing contracts. This constant shifting between projects
also makes it much harder for the PS to consider their career
as a contiguous entity, and therefore is likely to be far less
directed in acquiring the skills which may be useful to them if
and when they gain a permanent position.
(vi) There is concern from many older PS
that as you get more experienced you get more expensive and therefore
the length of the contract may actually reduce as you progress.
(vii) Living on contracts changes the entire
outlook of PS on their careers. 77 per cent of PS at the JIC would
like their next move to be to a group leader or senior scientist
position, and yet 64 per cent expect that they will simply remain
on contract work without any progression.
(viii) Rules of funding and pay. In addition
to the difficulty of promotion and career structure, in some cases
it has been brought to the committee's attention that pay progression
of PS can vary depending on the nature of their previous contracts,
leading to people with the same level of post-doctoral experience
receiving substantially different wages doing the same job.
3. Is there evidence that the present situation
causes good researchers to leave?
(i) This is a difficult area to quantify
as the evidence is largely anecdotal and very subjective as to
the quality of individuals and their reasons for leaving science.
Each member of the PSVC knows of one or more talented PS who has
left academic research, often for a job completely outside of
science. From our questionnaire of the PS at the JIC none responded
that they wished to leave science, yet over half said they expect
to leave science in the future and of those 62 per cent expect
this to be through no choice of their own. This career expectation
must be having an effect on the employment aims of all experienced
(ii) Women leaving science. The proportion
going on to become group leaders is remarkably low. In biological
sciences the number of male and female PS is about equal, but
the number in senior positions falls to 10 per cent (a number
which is falling). Women are forced (by the lack of opportunities
to progress on merit) to change jobs all through the years in
which they might want to be committing time to having children.
This is likely to make even the most talented researchers to look
for jobs with more security or chances for progression without
having to change jobs.
(iii) The PSVC feels that there is still
a prevalent attitude amongst senior staff that "if you are
good enough you'll get on alright". But as only 10 per cent
of PS are going to be able to become group leaders, why are the
other 90 per cent employed and trained for 10 years if they are
only good enough to leave academic science and go elsewhere? If
it is recognised that in the present system only a very small
proportion of people will remain in active academic research,
greater emphasis must be placed on training and preparation for
alternative careers so that all scientists have an informed choice
about their career options, and the best can then make the informed
choice to stay.
(iv) In addition to the issue of retaining
good, more established scientists, it is vital to note that the
absence of a coherent career structure in research, in combination
with uncompetitive salary scales, is now also deeply unattractive
to new science graduates and post-graduates. Promising UK-trained
life-scientists are therefore increasingly spurning academic research
careers at the outset. It is widely known to PSVC members, through
communication with present and past research group leaders, that
overall numbers and quality of applicants for both PhD and post-doctoral
research positions have been in marked decline in recent years,
a point which the PSVC hopes will be raised and elaborated by
managerial representations to the committee. There are genuine
concerns as to the sustainability of the current recruitment situation
in many subject areas.
(v) There is a feeling at the JIC that many
people remain in academic science not because of the career opportunities
that it offers, but rather despite of the career difficulties
it presents; ie research is highly vocational. The testimonies
provided by those who have left science show that they nearly
all still want to be doing good science, but they felt unable
to continue in the career structure of academic system.
4. What would be the right balance between
contract and permanent research staff in universities and research
The PSVC feels that this is not the only question
to be asking. It is true that contracts bring in "new blood",
but this is seldom with the explicit desire to get rid of that
person after only a few years. This system therefore leaves research
groups with poor continuity, especially with training and supervision.
It is therefore not simply a matter of balancing
the "percentage" of people working on contracts; rather
what needs to be addressed is how people are employed on money
that comes in to fund specific projects. Funding science on a
peer-reviewed project basis is a good way to ensure a range of
good science is done at universities and institutes, and would
be very hard to change fundamentally. In Section 6, we outline
possible solutions to allow more security for (and productivity
from) research workers in a funding system that is largely project
based. It is felt that project scientist recruitment should be
with made the aim of indefinitely employing a candidate. This
would ensure that there is real commitment to individuals and
their development from the start of their career, and prevent
the institutionalised "neglect and abuse" within the
short-term contract system that makes an academic career so unattractive
to career entrant scientists. The markedly increased attractiveness
of higher-security PS positions would lead to a commensurate increase
in the competitiveness of PS positions in academia, ensuring that
positions are filled by the highest-quality candidates. The ideas
presented in section 6 offer ways in which such a mode of employment
could be incorporated into academic funding structures.
5. Has the Concordat and Research Careers
Initiative made any difference?
None of the PSVC felt that the Concordat had
made any difference to the work of the Contract researchers at
the JIC. Its existence was generally not known about by PS in
departments. In particular some areas of the concordat which are
seen to have been applied very poorly at the JIC include:
Section 12(ii) & 30(i) Research councils
and institutions should be emphasising a move towards longer-term
and/or individual funding. At JIC such moves for current staff
have been openly discouraged with the motive that fellowships
will be for incoming scientists in tenure-track equivalent positions.
This blocks off natural career development opportunities within
the institute. Given that 50 per cent of PS want to stay in Norwich
after their current contract ends, this position has "created
tensions" which the Concordat suggest should be "managed
better" (Section 8& 9). Since "mobility" rather
than "ability" alone has become one of the criteria
on which potential fellowship applicants are accepted, this must
raise serious concern about "indirect discrimination"
(which is possibly illegal according to the Equal Opportunities
Commission) against women and men with family commitments and/or
dual career couples.
Section 14 (ii). Career advice. 67 per cent
of PS did not know where to go to get any careers advice. 78 per
cent of PS would like information about alternative careers. All
those who have been able to get careers advice (only 27 per cent)
have found it helpful.
Section 17(i). Career breaks. 97 per cent of
JIC PS have never taken a career break, even though 40 per cent
of them have been at the JIC for over five years. This suggests
that "re-entry routes" mentioned in the concordat are
Section 17 (ii). Regular review of progress
and development. 22 per cent of PS said that their line manager's
approach to the Performance and Personal Development Review (PPDR)
scheme was either indifferent or not serious. 59 per cent of PS
thought that it was a helpful exercise, and 33 per cent thought
it would be better if it were taken more seriously. It was seen
as positive in that it allowed an opportunity to discuss direction
with the group leader and review past work. However, it was seen
as pointless if it was not linked to any reward or progression
and, due to the low priority it was often given, it was seen as
Section 33. Information on careers progression
at start of contract. Only general information is given at the
start of the contract the same as is received by all staff. No
information on career progression particularly tailored to PS
or individuals is given nor are resources apparent for this. In
discussions we found out that we were supposed to receive a form
to summarise how "training and development benefits have
flowed" from the grant but PSVC was unaware of this. According
to the Concordat this would be a "condition" of awarding
It is also noted that if there is no mechanism
for assessment that the Concordat is being applied rather than
being paid lip service, then it will only ever have been a "cosmetic
6. How should policy move forward?
As stated previously, it is felt by the PSVC
that more far-reaching measures are required than simply adjusting
the number of research staff on short-term contracts, in order
to address the points raised above. It is felt that the current
short-term contractual system of research is out-dated, uneconomical,
results in the under-performance of both PS and their research,
and is of detriment to the careers of a majority of PS passing
It is felt that there is strong inertia and
a general lack of enthusiasm at managerial levels for far-reaching
policy change, but that ambitious policy changes are indeed necessary
if a career in research is to be an attractive and viable future
proposition for talented scientists.
There is a serious question as to whether too
many life-science PhD students are being trained. There clearly
aren't the job opportunities for them later on and it is unfair
to foster career expectations that can only be realised for a
very few. But a large volume of PhD students and project scientists
is recognised as essential for laboratories to achieve high outputs
of research data. Here there is a conflict between the need to
drive research forward, and of servicing researchers' career expectations.
It is recognised that the eventual career destination
of many PS is outside of academic science, and that dispersal
of well-trained scientists into a wide-range of industrial and
non-scientific careers is both valuable and desirable. However,
there needs to be a clear distinction between those researchers
choosing such exits, and those feeling forced into them. There
also needs to be a cultural change within academia to recognise
the validity of PS in training for non-academic roles, to ensure
the careers of those choosing such a route are developed with
equal and due regard. Career advice and monitoring needs to be
much more prevalent and effective, in order that career development
can be targeted effectively.
Within academic institutions, PS need a serious
career alternative to Project Leader or Research Assistant posts
to enable good, trained PS to remain in academic science without
hitting the "dead end" in career progression which appears
after a few contracts (see attached testimonials). This is considered
by PS to be the single biggest problem of the current contract
Three potential alternatives which the government
could consider as a way of solving the problems caused by short-term
project funding of research staff are presented here, together
with a very brief cost/benefit analysis of each option. These
solutions empower a PS with a degree of control over their own
job security, and career progression need not be tied solely to
the infamous "publications lottery", which can discriminate
against talented and valuable researchers through no fault of
their own, and which takes little account of the quality of environment
within which a person's research has been conducted. However,
only the third of these options inherently allows for more security
in a PS job, and it is realised that this system would only be
operable in a large institute such as the JIC.
(i) Break the Person/Project Link
One solution to the problem would be to break
the link between person and project. Rather than have each individual
employed on an individual project, treat every research group
as a unit funded by multiple projects. Within the group the projects
can be shared without any person being tied to funding from only
one source. In many larger research groups this system of intra-group
collaboration already exists in practice at the bench level.
Benefit: This solution would this prevent equal
pay problems and it would allow greater flexibility of labour
division. Instead of each researcher having to be the main contributor
to all aspects of each project, from planning and processing to
analysis and reporting, there could be greater local division
of tasks for more efficiency. There would also be greater scope
for the development of a local hierarchy to ease management difficulties
and facilitate career progression. Employment would continue for
as long as the group as a whole has funding rather than each member
having their own contract end date. This would increase the probability
of finishing projects as researchers spend less time looking for
work, and any researcher could pick up leftover projects when
others move on. This prevents situations where existing team members
apply for new projects within the group in order to gain a longer
contract, or valued researchers leaving a successful group because
of bad contract timing. In the event of a reduction in funding
a Research Group Leader would have the ability to retain the most
valuable staff, rather than having to let research group members
leave in the order of their project end dates. However flexibility
of employment is still maintained for those researchers who wish
to move on to further employment.
Cost: All researchers would have to be employed
on permanent or rolling contracts on the expectation that the
research group will continue to be successful. This reduces the
concern of researchers who would otherwise be approaching the
end of their project, but also removes the security that individual
researchers may feel at the beginning of each new project. It
may be necessary to provide redundancy payments to staff from
"downsizing" groups in the event of funding tail-off.
However such payments will also be required under EU employment
regulations for researchers ending existing short-term contracts.
Careful management will be required to balance size of group with
predicted duration of funding. Any given amount of funding could
run a large group for a short time or a smaller group for a longer
time and it would be up to each Research Group Leader to maintain
this at an optimum level with respect to the project deadlines.
There would however be a substantial saving in the cost of continuing
recruitment and re-training of new staff.
(ii) Allow Project Overlap and Group Overlap
In this proposal researchers maintain their
link to projects, but sever the link with Research Group Leaders.
Projects are split into smaller units and any researcher is free
to take multiple projects from any Research Group Leader.
Benefit: With large projects split into smaller
sections each facet can be given to the most appropriate researcher.
Researchers are able to draw on all their skills and experience
of relevance to multiple projects. Researchers are able to create
employment stability for themselves by gaining funding from multiple
sources with different finish dates and experienced researchers
can find reward for their own hard work and efficiency by completing
more mini-projects. This removes requirements of training staff
in new skills for sometimes a very small amount of work.
Cost: This is the least expensive solution as
each researcher is still project funded. It is heavier on administration
costs however as each project must be subdivided into individually
costed mini-projects and pay arrangements for each member of staff
become much more complicated.
(iii) Introduce Research Teams and Managers
Here solution 1 is extended further as researchers
are split from individual projects and also from their Research
Group Leaders. Instead researchers are organised into Research
Teams providing a service to the department. For example, instead
of each research group having a statistician, a PCR technician
and a genetic mapper, there would be a departmental statistical
analysis team, a PCR team and a mapping team, each processing
work for multiple Research Leaders. The Research Teams are co-ordinated
by Team Managers who organise the tasks within the group, liase
with Research Leaders and co-ordinate with other Team Managers.
Team members should retain their flexibility and multi-disciplinary
skills by frequent change over from team to team.
Benefit: This system avoids current problems
of recruiting researchers with the correct balance of skills and
experience. For example, a project may require a small amount
of a highly analytical technique, eg quantitative genetic mapping,
and a large amount of very routine work, eg marker screening of
large populations. Finding a researcher who is experienced in
the former, but who would not become bored of the latter is difficult
and often a compromise must be sought. With this system Research
Leaders are able to request work from any Research Team and can
at all times employ exactly the right mix of skills for their
projects. Similar work can be combined efficiently within the
teams and all Research Leaders have access to the entire skill
base of the department. Frequent exchange of researchers between
the teams allows each research team to expand and contract as
the work of the department requires, prevents staff boredom, and
permits skill training and skill retention to occur in a proactive
and positive way. The Research Leaders will have no direct staff
responsibilities and will be free to concentrate on and pursue
the strategic aspects of their science.
Cost: Like solution 1, the staff must be employed
on permanent or rolling contracts, but this time the costs are
spread and efficiencies gained across the department as a whole.
An extra layer of management is required, the Team Manager, to
co-ordinate the Research Teams. These would be senior positions
of a level with most Research Leaders (approx five positions per
department at Band 4-5; £23,000-£47,500). However Research
Leaders would no longer require a Research Assistant (approximately
10 positions per department at Band 6-7 £15,900-£27,000)
and there would be considerable savings in recruitment and training
costs because of improved staff retention.
(iv) Overall Recommendation
A comprehensive restructuring of the funding
and recruitment system in research institutes would provide major
benefits in staff morale and avoid serious existing problems of
staff retention, continual recruitment costs and training costs.
It would also allow greater compliance with employment law. This
could be achieved by either breaking the link between researchers
and research projects (Option 1), uncoupling researchers and research
group leaders (Option 2) or both (Option 3). It is suggested that
courageous and progressive changes are indeed now desirable, and
need not be logistically prohibitive to implement. Any restructuring
strategy should be flexible, enabling the implementation of a
choice/strategy appropriate for each type research institution.
Finally it is suggested that a code of good practise should be
adopted by institutions towards their contract researchers, which
must be linked to formal monitoring and consequences for under-performance
or non-compliance. This would help to ensure that PS feel they
are treated as valued and respected members of the academic community,
as opposed to disposable "hands at the bench" as is
the prevalent perception at present.
21 June 2002