Contract researchers are expected to win significant improvements in their working conditions in the next few weeks.
Details of a framework for their career management are to be published following consultation on a draft "concordat" drawn up by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, the research councils and the Royal Society last year.
The move follows widespread concern about the poor management and employment conditions of more than 18,000 fixed-term researchers.
The concordat is expected to place responsibility for the career management of researchers on employing institutions.
It will warn, however, that research councils and the Royal Society "will wish to be satisfied", before giving grants and fellowships to institutions, and that they have effective policies on research training, supervision and appraisal.
The draft concordat said that short-term contract work indirectly discriminates against women in science and suggested that maternity leave and pay provisions for contract staff should be in line with provisions for established staff.
It also said that the salaries element of grants could be used by institutions to provide paid maternity leave and sick pay to members of contract research staff. The final agreement is expected to endorse these proposals.
Tom Wilson, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "The concordat is far from perfect. Nonetheless it could be the best thing to have happened to contract researchers for long time."
The new framework's emphasis on proper management of contract researcher is extremely important, he said. "Many of the researchers would like to be appraised and better able to take up staff training and development opportunities. They know only some will gain permanent posts and indeed many may not want to. But for those that do, the concordat means they have a fair and open chance to move to more permanent posts and develop a university career."
Mr Wilson warned that the success of the concordat will depend on the efforts of universities, funding bodies and the researchers themselves: "That commitment is as important as the words on paper."