Life on the bottom rung

February 23, 1996

Contract research staff earn a pittance and have only a slim hope of promotion. Ayala Ochert examines efforts to alleviate their plight

Lowest-paid and often lowest-status, contract researchers make up over one third of academic staff at universities. If you decide to stay on in research after completing your PhD, it is likely that you will end up as one, employed on a contract that lasts just two to three years.

According to a recent survey commissioned by the Association of University Teachers there are significant problems facing contract research staff. Lack of job security was foremost among their fears, particularly for those who were no longer just starting out in research. The survey also identified "insurmountable problems" to a sustainable career path in contract research, with staff moving aimlessly from one contract to the next, often without recognition or pay increases.

But now there are some schemes that are trying to tackle these problems, many driven by the worry that the most talented people are being put off academia.

The most lauded of these has been the Warwick Research Fellowships scheme, which has been set up at the University of Warwick to attract "outstanding talent". These longer-term fellowships last six years and are aimed at those in the 28-35 age group, with the expectation that the fellows will stay on and become permanent staff members. John Reed, head of public relations at Warwick, says: "We are preserving the future quality of our academics, as well as injecting young blood in the university."

The Wellcome Trust, a major charitable foundation funding research in the biomedical sciences, has also introduced schemes aimed at bridging the gap between short-term contracts and becoming a research leader in one's own right. David Gordon, director of the career development programme at the Wellcome Trust, says: "Because of the process of incremental drift, people who would have got a senior fellowship several years ago are now unlikely to get one. So, in response, we have introduced fellowships at a slightly lower level which last four years." These Research Career Development Fellowships allow postdoctoral scientists with several years research experience to make their own research proposals. "We recognised that in a number of projects, the postdoctoral researcher was in practice the key person, and we thought it appropriate for them to compete for themselves."

So, if you are lucky enough to find yourself in the top 2 per cent of academics, then you may be transported out of the endless stream of short-term contracts. But, for the rest it is more difficult, says Jamie Darwen, chairman of the National Postgraduate Committee.

He says of people on three-year contracts, "in reality you start looking again after two years. It's not a good way to go about things and it affects the quality of research."

There has been sufficient concern about contract research for a group of the great and the good to have drafted a concordat on the career management of contract research staff which could be implemented by September.

The signatories are universities, funding councils and charities. "There has been a lack of investment in career management," says Alan Walker of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. "And there is a fear of a knock-on effect for output. If morale is low then productivity could suffer. We can't manage without these contract staff and we depend on their supply."

But, he says: "A lot needs to be done to turn the general proposals of the concordat into actual schemes."

However, the research councils do not criticise contract research itself - they just call for better management. "Contract staff make a significant contribution to research, and have fresh ideas and techniques. Short contracts can provide a useful training, and people are able to get a lot of experience from different projects," says Walker.

John Adams is director of research strategy at Leeds University, where they feel that the concordat has focused too strongly on outstanding high-fliers. His group has been developing an integrated approach which will address the career development of all academic staff. "One of the biggest problems facing the academic research community is that the number of permanent academic staff has remained static or fallen, while the number of staff on short-term contracts has increased enormously." To mitigate against the effects of Government cuts, universities have dramatically increased their research undertakings, increasing the number of contract staff fourfold in the last 12 years.

"It was never the intention of the research councils to fund seedcorn lecturers. They are supposed to fund science-based research activity," explains Adams, who clearly feels that universities must shoulder responsibility for the situation. While arrangements at Leeds are informal at the moment, their central plan for contract research staff is twofold. First, they encourage outstanding researchers by offering them rolling contracts that they expect, in the case of their most promising candidates, will become permanent contracts. Second, they recognise that a large proportion of contract staff are unlikely ever to land tenured posts. For these people, they offer career counselling and training courses to help identify and develop transferable skills. "A high proportion of those who start off in research see it as a natural progression towards an academic career. But doing research is a good way of developing people as problem solvers, project leaders, team members and sound all-rounders. There is a range of careers open to them," says Adams, who is looking at the core skills that researchers ought to gain, including personal presentation skills and time management.

Alerting contract staff to the reality of research to avoid disappointment may be an important aspect of career guidance. The AUT survey found that nearly 46 per cent hoped to pursue a pure academic research career, while only 16 per cent preferred a career outside academia.

As of September of this year, all universities will be forced by the concordat to consider the career management of their contract research staff. They may be looking to the model set up by the Scottish Graduate Career Programme, which has been extending the work of the universities of Strathclyde and Edinburgh, praised last year by the House of Lords select committee on science and technology. Later this year the programme will be taking its travelling roadshow around Scottish universities to give advice on career options and job search strategies, as well as identifying transferable skills.

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