The Association of University Teachers has accused some research councils of "discriminating" against contract researchers by dealing with their grant requests on the basis of the employment contract they hold rather than on merit.
The charge arises from research council replies to the AUT, which had asked them to outline their policies on contract staff holding grants in their own right.
Paul Timms, former chairman of the AUT's contract research committee and a researcher at Leeds University, says the replies show that policy among many of the councils is not only "discriminatory" but also inefficient: "If contract researchers have a good idea and are not allowed to put forward a proposal under their own name, they have to get a 'sleeping partner' to do so instead - it just increases bureaucracy in the system."
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council told the AUT its policy was that "researchers who are employed on short-term contracts or research council grants are not eligible for funding either in their own right or as co-applicant". Applicants must hold an appropriate appointment within the university which will last for at least the duration of the application, it said.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council normally expects applicants to be permanent employees of an organisation. Fixed-term employees may be eligible for grants provided the council is satisfied of the support given to the researcher by the host institution.
The Medical Research Council said that although anyone in an eligible academic institution may apply, in practice most of its grant schemes require a track record of research achievement. "This means applicants will normally have either an established academic appointment or be senior fellows of the council, Royal Society, Wellcome Trust or other charities. Decisions are made on a case by case basis."
But the Natural Environment Research Council told the AUT it changed its policy in January to allow contract research staff to appear as co-applicants but still not as sole or first named investigator. And the Economic and Social Research Council said its policy was that contract research staff are entitled to apply in their own right and should be the applicant if they are directing the research.
The AUT said: "It is clear from these statements that the majority of councils continue to discriminate against contract researchers. Councils in general seem happy to consider applicants on the status of their employment contract rather than on the merits of their proposals."
The union said the findings showed that policy among many of the councils did not fit in with the concordat on research staff career management to which they were signatories. The agreement committed universities to providing contract researchers "with rewards and other terms and conditions of service... which are in line with those for established staff".