Basic instinct

August 9, 1996

Dear Ron, I note that your committee will be concerned with higher education's contribution to basic, strategic and applied scientific research and how it should be enhanced to match international standards of excellence.

I start with the matter of the personnel who will be involved in the achievement of this worthy objective. While the need for a proper career structure for those engaged in scientific research was at first denied by those in authority, it is now widely accepted and I welcome the various moves that have recently taken place to improve the lot of those on short-term contracts. In this regard the concordat drawn up by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, the research councils and the Royal Society is helpful. One of its major recommendations is that the universities, as employers, should take a real interest in the progress of the careers of their contract researchers. If taken seriously, this will have important implications for the heads of departments and personnel departments of our universities, which have previously shown little interest in such activities.

I turn now to the link between teaching and research. It is generally agreed that teaching of all grades of science graduates is best conducted in an atmosphere of research. In this respect I would like to draw the attention of the committee to some disturbing developments in university science departments. The recent report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology on Academic research careers for graduate scientists showed that contract staff now form the bulk of researchers in most science and engineering departments, with the highest proportion in biochemistry (64 per cent), pharmacology (61 per cent) and clinical medicine (60 per cent). These people on short-term contracts inevitably exhibit very little loyalty for the institutions that employ them. Their incentive is for each to gain the best reputation possible so that they can subsequently be in a favourable position to compete in the scramble to gain a more permanent post either in academia or industry.

Traditionally, science departments of universities depended on their heads to assign teaching activities to the various academic members of the department. When most members had tenure, the head could exercise a reasonable degree of authority in such matters, but now that the bulk of the staff are working on short-term contracts the situation has changed, as the few established new posts go to those who can attract large research grants and are not primarily interested in teaching. The established academic staff may well regard time devoted to teaching as merely a necessary evil. Indeed there is much evidence that contract researchers are often required to conduct tutorials and supervise practicals that should be the responsibility of the established staff.

One consequence of these changes has been that the desirable goal of teaching in an atmosphere of research has drifted ever further over the horizon. This lack of attention to the importance of teaching will eventually have a devastating effect on the future prospects of our young talented students to undertake original research. There are various ways in which universities have attempted to ameliorate the situation. One is to eliminate separate departments and to create schools such as life sciences, in which teaching activities are organised in a different way from research. This is almost essential where there is a call for problem-based learning, as in the teaching of preclinical medical students. But such reorganisations do not overcome the main problem of the reduction in the proportion of established staff.

It is my firm conclusion that if the United Kingdom is to restore the fine reputation of its universities as seats of learning and research, in which proper teaching is conducted in an atmosphere of research, the majority of academic staff must have a reasonable measure of security, in compensation for which they would be happy to engage in a wide variety of activities. A measure of the excellence of a university is the willingness of its staff to engage in activities beyond the call of duty.

PETER CAMPBELL Emeritus professor of biochemistry at the University of London.

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