RESEARCH councils are expected to warn the government that thousands of contract researchers could lose their jobs if Sir Ron Dearing's proposal to raise overhead payments is accepted without making extra cash available.
Sir Ron proposed that research councils raise overhead payments from 45 per cent of staff costs to 60 per cent. Council heads calculate that without extra money higher overheads would lead to a 10 per cent reduction in the volume of research funded.
"If the volume decreases then the first and softest option for universities will be to reduce the number of contract researchers by around 10 per cent," said the funding council heads, who met last week in the first of a series of meetings aimed at formulating a response to Dearing by October.
Dearing also recommended that those institutions which can justify it should attract 100 per cent overhead payments on project cost. If councils were required to make this full overhead payment across the board, the total decline in volume of research funded would be 30 per cent, council heads predict.
Dearing says ideally the increased overhead payment should be met through new money. But council heads fear the government may opt for the alternative of transferring funds from research councils to funding councils.
One council head said that if the higher overheads were demanded from councils by the end of the year, then "in the short term we would have difficulty funding grants already made". The councils would need two or three years for the transition, he said.
The plight of contract researchers in universities has been a concern in recent years. A House of Lords study last year said their number had exploded from 6,000 in 1977/78 to 18,600 in 1993/94 and that they lacked the same status and career opportunities as their full-time colleagues. Many of these are supported by research councils.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council supports 3,770; the Natural Environment Research Council 860 and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council 800.
A concordat signed last year between unions, the Committee of Vice Principals and Chancellors and research councils is aiming to address the problems highlighted by the Lords. Unions estimate half of all academics employed in science are on casual contract and that only 400 people a year get permanent jobs in the field.