Ask the panel

September 16, 2005

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

Because of limited lab space, my department restricts the number of people allowed to apply for fellowships, and I have not been allowed to submit one. Part of the reason for this is that my principal investigator (PI) has not supported my aspiration; instead, he uses my ideas for his grant proposals. Some of these provide funding to pay my salary, but I get no credit. How can I protect my intellectual property?

* You are certainly in a tricky situation but Research Councils UK is clear that you have certain rights.

Our panellist says: "I wish you well in gaining feedback from your PI on why he hasn't supported your aspiration to apply for a fellowship. Of course, it is not only grant proposals that should give credit where it is due, but any publication.

"The Royal College of Physicians has defined scientific misconduct as piracy, plagiarism and fraud, with piracy being the deliberate exploitation of ideas from others without acknowledgement. To apply to the research councils, your university must have procedures in place governing good research practice and the prevention of misconduct.

"There is some variation between councils, but most say that postdoctoral research assistants who make a significant contribution to the preparation of the proposal and the ensuing research may be named on research grants proposals, for example as co-investigator."

* Our academic says that it can be hard to challenge your PI.

"You pose a dilemma faced by many research staff today," she says. "You need to define and defend your intellectual property, but doing so may cost you your job. This iniquitous position is compounded by restrictive eligibility criteria set by many funding bodies that prevent researchers from applying for funding as PI.

"What most grant application forms do contain is space for a named researcher. This is sometimes used as "code" to indicate a significant intellectual contribution from that person. As not all named researchers have contributed, you will still be reliant on your PI to confirm your intellectual involvement.

"If you cannot rely on your PI to name you on grant applications you have written, I suggest you try to move group and, better still, departments, although I acknowledge that getting a good reference from your PI may also be tricky."

* The panellist from the Association of University Teachers is well aware of this issue.

"It is difficult if the rules of the research councils do not allow you to apply for funding in your own right (which is something the AUT continues to raise with the research councils), but you may be able to be named as a co-investigator or researcher on a grant application," he says.

"The problems you face are also compounded because of the culture within research in higher education that leaves individual research staff feeling that they are at the mercy of individual PIs. However, the university, as employer, should be taking responsibility for your career development.

"If you think that your PI is working against your career development this should be raised, for example, through your human resources department.

"It is likely that the university has signed up to the Concord-at for the Career Management of Contract Research Staff, which obliges them to take your career development seriously."

* The panellist from the University and Colleges Employers' Association says: "Contributing to the work of the team is a key part of every member's role. Assuming that what you are raising goes substantially beyond this, and unless you have already done so, you should tactfully broach the subject with your PI. It may be that he is happy to give credit where it is due and it just had not occurred to him before.

"On a broader level, protecting your intellectual property is an important part of your career development, and your human resources department should be able to advise and support you."

This advice panel includes the Association of University Teachers, Natfhe, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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