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May 13, 2005

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My university is seeking to shift contract research staff to open-ended contracts (to comply with the fixed-term employee regulations) but with the expectation that research grants will still pay their salaries. I asked the Medical Research Council if such staff would still be eligible for MRC support. The council replied: 'These staff are considered to be "established" staff, and as such are ineligible for MRC salary support.'

Doesn't this make the regulations unworkable?

This is a complicated area, and the question provoked much debate among our panel.

First, the good news: researchers on open-ended contracts are still able to have their salaries paid by research councils.

Second, the less good news: not all these researchers can apply for such funding. It depends on whether researchers can now apply for a grant as principal investigators and include the cost of their salary in that grant.

In the past, they could not.

* For clarity, we will deal with eligibility first. The unions have been as concerned as you about the Medical Research Council.

Here is what the panellist from the Association of University Teachers had to say: "The AUT is aware that the MRC is out of step with employment legislation. As a result of the fixed-term employee regulations, after July 10, 2006, staff who have been employed on two or more fixed-term contracts for four years will be regarded as being on open-ended contracts unless the employer can show objective justification for continuing to use fixed-term contracts.

"This means that institutions will have to move many research staff to open-ended contracts. If the MRC continues to regard such staff as 'established' and ineligible for its support, it will undermine the aim of the regulations."

* The panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association points to changes in practice by research councils that should offer a way forward.

He says: "Research Councils UK, the umbrella body for all eight research councils, has assured Ucea and higher education institutions that - whatever past practice - in future the councils' conditions of grant will not include requirements to appoint staff on a fixed-term basis. The type of employment offered will be determined by the university as employer."

He adds:"Research councils' practices in respect of funding for 'established' staff will also change after the introduction of the full economic costing regime for research grants from September."

* The panellist from Research Councils UK confirms this.

"It is likely that this question was asked of the MRC some time ago," he says, "because it identifies a potential problem that has been addressed through a recent change to research council grant conditions. There is now no bar to supporting staff on any council's grants because of the length of contract for them as researcher."

He adds: "The councils have agreed a common set of terms and conditions ( http:///www.rcuk.ac.uk/whatsnew.asp ). This has been done as part of the move to full economic costing, but it has the effect of removing the restriction contained in the old MRC conditions."

* But our academic representative says the issue of who can apply for grants cannot be ignored.

"It is great that RCUK is now making it clear that people on open-ended contracts can be funded by research council grant.

"But the key question is can those on open-ended contracts, in particular the principal investigator on a project, apply for grants that include the cost of their salaries? Only one council, the Economic and Social Research Council, is in step with the spirit of the legislation. It permits research staff to be principal investigator and to apply for their own salary."

On this, RCUK answers: "The terms and conditions do not relate to eligibility, which is addressed by each council in its funding guides."

This panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK and Rachel Flecker, a Bristol University academic who sits on Bristol's Research Staff Working Party. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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