Ask the panel

March 16, 2007

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

'What should happen when the principal, and sole, investigator on a research grant goes on maternity leave? With continual pressure to bring in research funds, it is not possible to stop applying for grants when planning a family. My maternity leave coincided with holding three grants from research councils and charities that employed three research associates. No one else in my department had the expertise to run them in my absence.The small print of the funding contracts contained provisions for when a research assistant takes maternity leave, but there was no mention of principal investigators taking maternity leave. Are they all assumed to be male?'

* Our panellist from the University and College Union says: "It can be difficult to take leave from a project, especially when you are committed to your research.

"Under full economic costing, universities are able to recover the salary costs of principal investigators working on externally funded projects. But your question highlights one of the anomalies in research council funding: grant funds may be used for paid maternity or paternity leave for staff directly employed to work on the project, but not for those staff who are funded by 'indirect costs', often principal investigators holding lectureships.

"The responsi-bility for organising cover lies with the university, rather than with you. This means that the university will have to fully fund the cost of any cover they provide for your post. Universities make provisions for a variety of 'on-costs' in staffing budgets and providing maternity cover should not be a problem.

"Further, most universities have arrangements for the support of staff undertaking research, often with a dedicated team of staff to assist principal investigators and grant holders who should be able to provide advice."

"There are certainly more men than women acting as principal investigators (because of the higher level of men in senior academic grades) - something employers need to be actively working to change - but that should not put female investigators at a disadvantage when they exercise their right to maternity leave."

* Our panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association says: "This is an issue for your university to deal with, rather than yourself. As with any other member of staff taking maternity leave, your department is responsible for organising appropriate cover and for determining how this should be paid for. It seems unlikely that the funding councils will pay for additional resources to cover your post if this is funded by your university rather than from external funds, but I'm sure your research services department would be able to advise further on this."

* Our panellist from the Equality Challenge Unit says: "Grants awarded by the research councils are made to research organisations on the basis of a single set of core terms and conditions. The research councils can provide the best advice about their own rules, but there may be an expectation from them that someone else will need to act as principal investigator during your maternity leave, depending on the length of your leave and the duration of their funding.

"However, if your baby is due after April 1 2007, you may be able to reach an agreement with your employer and the funders of your research whereby you take advantage of one of the provisions in the Work and Families Act to continue as principal investigator through your maternity leave. The Act makes provision for a total of ten 'Keeping in Touch Days' during your maternity leave. This may be sufficient for you to continue to supervise your research associates until you return to work."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, Research Councils UK 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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