Ask the panel

May 19, 2006

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

I have heard many rumours about what full economic costing will mean for academic staff, but I have found it difficult to get accurate information. Can you tell me what difference it will make to contract research staff?

* Our panellist from Research Councils UK says: "It should not make a huge difference to those who are in research-only posts.

Essentially, the full economic costing of research will make grant costing more transparent and research more sustainable in the long term. Overheads such as upkeep of a lab are included through the 'transparent approach to costing'.

"If a grant is awarded by one of the research councils, it will provide funding at 80 per cent of the full economic costs. For research-only posts funded through a grant, time working on the project can be fully supported.

"Funding should be requested at a salary level commensurate with the skills, responsibilities, expertise and experience necessary to carry out the proposed research. As with proposals made before full economic costing, this level will need to be fully justified within the case for support.

"There is further information to be gleaned from research council guides available through their websites."

* Our Association of University Teachers panellist says: "Full economic costing means identifying the real and full cost to the university of undertaking a research project, including direct and indirect costs. The way full economic costing works means that staff do not have to be exclusively identified with a single project at any one time for their costs to be recovered. Therefore, more resourceful means of deploying research staff can be developed. For example, pools of permanent research staff could be established to work either on single or multiple projects."

She adds: "Full economic costing means more money for institutions to support research. Additional funding is intended to make research more sustainable, not to increase volumes of activity.

"However, sustainable research needs a sustainable workforce. This is incompatible with the widespread use of fixed-term contracts. Permanent contracts should be the norm. Additional funding should be invested in the support and career development of research and associated staff, and staff should be allowed to continue in employment between projects.

"Therefore, full economic costing has some potential benefits for research staff but unless you, your colleagues and your union are asking where the extra money is going and demanding that it is used for the benefit of research staff, it is unlikely that such benefits will be realised."

* Our resident academic says: "While I agree that full economic costing may bring more flexibility in the employment of research staff, there is little evidence that universities are instigating this sort of innovation.

"A more obvious negative repercussion for researchers relates to their ability to apply for grants. The implementation of full economic costing seems to have crystallised anxieties about the success level for grant rounds, with several research councils admitting success rates are about 20 per cent or less, means that luck is involved in getting a grant funded.

This undermines claims that research councils fund the best UK research, and as a result there is considerable pressure to reduce the number of applications submitted.

Various mechanisms to achieve this reduction have been discussed, but whichever is adopted, I think that one probable outcome will be a further restriction of eligibility rules preventing research staff from applying for grants in their own name. This is a retrograde step not only for research staff in terms of their ability to sustain and enhance their careers, but also for the quality of research funded in this country.

"Justifying the claim that the best UK research is funded requires more than making the peer-review system work effectively; it means opening available resources to the entire research-active population, not just the half funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England."

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