The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee’s request for comments on short-term research contracts in science and engineering. The RSE is Scotland's National Academy of Science and Letters, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled with the assistance of a wide cross section of Fellows and approved for distribution under delegated authority from the Council.
The current problem of short-term contracts essentially stems from the high number of short-term research grants. These research grants are short-term because research funding agencies want to remain maximally responsive to new scientific developments. However, the issue of research careers in higher education is becoming increasingly important due to difficulties in recruiting sufficient high quality research students and postdoctoral workers to undertake this research.
The specific questions identified in the call for evidence are addressed below.
Does the preponderance of short-term research contracts really matter? Why?
There are advantages in short-term contracts to the institution. They include flexibility, for example, in allowing those with a suitable background to be deployed in priority areas; retention of suitable staff on short term contracts until permanent posts become available; facility with which staff numbers can be reduced at short notice in response to unexpected reductions in other support funding; ease with which individuals who do not perform satisfactorily or are clearly unsuited to a particular research activity can have their appointments terminated.
The disadvantages arising from short-term contracts, however, include there being a limited time for curiosity driven as opposed to goal oriented research and preference being given to short term rather than to long term research projects. At a personal level, lack of job security may lead to low morale and a high percentage of time spent seeking other more permanent employment in science or elsewhere. The insecurity of short-term contracts may give rise to difficulties in buying houses and planning families, and these may be exacerbated when both partners are career scientists on differing short-term contracts. It should be borne in mind, however, that contracts in industry can also be expressed as short term, often with less favourable terms than in universities.
There is also a perception among many undergraduate and postgraduate students that academic research is not a rewarding and satisfying career, a view based on observation of the experience of those currently in university positions. Pay is undoubtedly a major issue at all levels. Increasing the stipends of postgraduate students and young postdoctoral workers, as has been proposed recently, will undoubtedly help to attract the best undergraduates into postgraduate training and PhDs into postdoctoral positions but unless there are corresponding improvements in pay and conditions at all levels this is not likely to address the difficulty of attracting the most able individuals into academic careers. To obtain high-class engineers and scientists, the country needs good educators. However, with academics and researchers in the engineering sciences increasingly attracted into industry, there is likely to be a serious shortfall of such scientists and engineers in universities. This could result in HEIs being unable to provide well-qualified researchers in the future.
What are the implications for researchers and their careers?
It should be recognised that researchers on short-term contracts are not a homogeneous group. Some researchers undertake a brief period of contract research following Ph.D. work, often in order to work out more thoroughly a line of research already initiated, or to obtain experience in another area that has attracted their enthusiasm during their doctoral studies. Such people have no intention of pursuing long-term careers in universities, but may well want to use the contacts of the supervisor to secure a reasonable job in industry, or they may well leave research altogether once they have achieved their particular goals. The main concern that those advising such researchers have in terms of their careers is to make sure that they do not stay in university too long, else they run the risk of being seen as failed academics. The length of time such post-doctoral workers stay becomes a delicate balance between acquiring important research skills valued by industry and appearing to see industry as a career second best.
A second group do consciously set out as contract researchers with the aim of attaining a conventional academic post in a research-intensive university. Finally, there is a small but important group of researchers who have no intention of competing for conventional academic positions, but who are outstanding researchers who wish to stay in a university environment. Such researchers are looking for a quite different career path, and a quite different relationship with the university: in effect, the deal they seek can be summarised as the university providing accommodation and basic facilities, the researcher providing salary, overheads and equipment. Universities need to become more adept at career management for these groups, and set out more clearly the criteria for promotion.
In general, the position of those on short-term contracts, at least for those early in their careers, is probably not much different to that of their peers in business and industry but is in marked contrast to the stability and lack of movement of those in established university posts.
Is there evidence that the present situation causes good researchers to leave?
There are numerous examples where principal investigators have had to prevent valuable members of staff leaving research and going into other more permanent areas of employment. There is also, however, the pressing problem of attracting the most able individuals into academic careers.
What would be the right balance between contract and permanent research staff in universities and research institutions?
In a healthy scientific career structure there should be more entering at the lower levels than there are positions at the top as it is impossible to predict reliably who amongst PhD applicants has all the many characteristics required for a successful research career.
Has the Concordat and the Research Careers Initiative made any difference?
Short-term research contracts have risen up the agenda partly through the advent of the concordat, and the working out of one of its main themes: that research staff in universities should, as far as possible, have the same rights and responsibilities as permanent mainstream academic staff. Programmes to help young scientists take control of their careers have also been established as a result of the concordat but more needs to be done particularly at the PhD level. Recent legislation, however, giving acquired rights to researchers after 4 years of employment has also focussed managerial attention.
How should policy move forward?
Undoubtedly, the offer of open-ended employment by a university would ease some problems, such as mortgage and insurance difficulties. In Scotland, in the post-1992 higher education sector, several universities have introduced such schemes, usually with a two or three-year probation periods. This could be a model for this group of staff in the pre-92 sector, although the practicalities of operating with much larger numbers needs to be examined carefully.
Consideration would need to be given as to whether the introduction of such a scheme would substantially reduce the number of posts available to those just completing their Ph.D. studies. Clearly if the net effect were to lengthen the tenure of contract researchers, and there were to be no increase in the net research support monies available, then there will be fewer initial openings, and the continual renewal of the contract research base, which has undoubtedly been to the benefit of UK science, would be compromised. The evidence from the French experience with CNRS was that the decision to give contract researchers within the CNRS tenure some thirty years ago led to a substantial increase in research output initially, but the system became increasingly sclerotic, with the result that deep and harmful cuts needed eventually to be made to restore competitiveness. It will be important, therefore, to ensure that career openings from Ph.D. continue to be available to those interested in a career in research, whether an academic career or one in industry, and this can only be done by recognising that many of those who enter contract research will not obtain permanent employment in universities. More clearly recognised exit points and an environment in which those who choose to leave are not seen as having failed in any way would assist in this process.
Another way forward is through the increased use of Research Fellowships. Fellowships provide a completely different way of funding science, by assessing the track-record of a researcher. Fellows are then entrusted to chose the right research areas themselves. The majority of Fellowships currently available in the UK are aimed at researchers running their own labs, but a few, such as those of the RSE are available to postdocs and lecturers. The scientific career structure could be greatly improved if more of these Fellowships were available for the best postdocs, which could be taken up directly after PhD work, awarded on the basis of research excellence.
The professional position of short-term contract research staff in promoted grades also needs to be enhanced, with universities allowing them to supervise research students, and with Research Councils finding mechanisms to allow them to propose new work and to act as Principal Investigators.
In responding to this inquiry the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: Academic Careers for Graduate Scientists (April 1995) and Review of the supply of scientists and engineers (August 2001).
Professor Andrew Miller CBE FRSE
The Royal Society of Edinburgh
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