Before the ink dries on the new concordat aimed at giving contract researchers better working conditions, concerns are being raised about whether the new agreement goes far enough and whether it will be monitored to guard against exploitation.
Launched last week by Diana Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, and negotiated with the research councils and charities, the agreement puts conditions for 18,000 contract researchers on a par with those of established academics, particularly for paid maternity and sick leave.
"This is a major step forward in the career management of researchers," said Ms Warwick at a conference on research management organized by DORCISS (the Association of Directors of Research Centres in the Social Sciences). Not everyone in the audience agreed. While welcoming the concordat, Janet Lewis, research director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, wondered whether it was "exploitative" in that it laid the onus or blame for their plight on victims (ie researchers) rather than proposing career development help for them.
"It's saying to the poor researchers, 'We're not going to improve the circumstances in which you work because we expect you to manage your careers, but we're going to give you a bit more help and advice,'" she told the conference held at the Policy Studies Institute in London.
Pamela Meadows, director of the PSI, said that it was "a scandal" that institutions had been employing contract researchers without giving them paid maternity and sick leave. The PSI - a private research organisation - uses overhead charges to bear the cost of maternity leave and paid sick leave. What particularly irritated her was that under the concordat the task of finding new project funding is left up to researchers rather than the insitution. All PSI staff are employed in open-ended contracts which means that they are not left unemployed at the end of a project.
The concordat does not give contract researchers sabbaticals, a point deplored by Leela Damodaran, who runs the human sciences and advanced technology research centre at Loughborough University.
Mike Powell, senior policy adviser at the CVCP, said the agreement would be evaluated. "There's a commitment to monitoring it," he said.