Leader: The overlooked and the unpaid

February 4, 2005

The insecurity faced by contract researchers on fixed-term contracts in the UK has proved an intractable problem. For the past two weeks The Times Higher has highlighted both the number of initiatives designed to give these researchers more security and the disappointing reality for many on the ground.

This week, the focus is on those working for free (pages 1 and 6). It would be hard to find any justification for this practice. While the funding complexities that lie behind the use of contract researchers are well documented and endlessly debated, the personal impact is often ignored.

This is in part because these researchers feel so marginal to their institution. It is all too easy not to hear their voice. By the time their complaints have been heard there is every chance they will have moved on.

Indeed, one of those interviewed last week had moved jobs in between being interviewed and being photographed.

While the problem affects all disciplines, it is a particular problem in the sciences. It is worth re-reading the 2002 SET for Success report by Sir Gareth Roberts into the supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills. The report notes that the number of graduates in maths, engineering and the physical sciences had fallen just as the demand for highly numerate graduates was growing. "However, instead of the resulting higher salaries acting to draw more students into these subjects to fill these shortages, the trend is that fewer students are choosing to enter these shortage subjects. This suggests that there is a 'disconnect' between the demand for these skills and their supply."

The fact that committed researchers end up working for free may be part of that "disconnect". The worry is not only that their dedication is in danger of being lost, but that such practice makes them poor role models for the next generation.

Much hangs on the impact of European Union regulations on fixed-term contracts. By 2006, the optimists say, open-ended or permanent contracts should be the norm, with universities having to justify the use of fixed-term contracts for staff employed on them for more than four years.

There are notable examples of good practice in this area, such as Reading University. But elsewhere progress is lamentably slow.

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