Contractors 'still undervalued'

May 12, 2000

The poor treatment meted out to contract research staff is damaging academia and the country as a whole, according to the second report of the research careers initiative (RCI), published this week.

Science minister David Sainsbury said: "Research staff are key players in sustaining the excellence of UK research and in stimulating innovation in the wider economy. We - and they - must get their career development right."

More than 30,000 researchers work on fixed-term contracts in academia, alongside 70,000 staff doing both teaching and research on more permanent contracts.

Yet when these researchers reach the end of their contracts, more than half have no definite job to go to. This is despite a concordat on the career management of contract researchers agreed in 1996 between funding bodies and representatives of higher education institutions.

The report, sponsored by the Office of Science and Technology and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, found some improvements in working conditions for contract staff over the past two years. However much more needs to be done.

A separate report by JM Consulting, seen by The THES this week, concluded that "there was evidence that the CVCP concordat has had some influence in raising awareness of the need for training and support for (new) research staff, but there was little evidence of it having a significant and widespread impact across the sector."

It found that "the majority of participants felt that there was little opportunity for them to plan a career path early in their academic career... Many career moves were opportunistic in nature, with individuals trying to secure a permanent post rather than a position in a chosen field... Generally attendees (at the survey seminars) felt unrewarded, under pressure and in many cases, undervalued".

Universities that fail to offer research training and career development to contract staff must be penalised by the funding bodies, the RCI report recommended.

"People are among the most important outputs of research and the dual support system should reward the development of researchers who meet the needs of academia, industry and the wider economy. However the funding systems have offered academics no incentive to attend to the development of their research staff... This has been a missing ingredient for too long," it noted.

Sir Gareth Roberts, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield and chairman of the RCI steering group, said: "The single most important initiative that can now be taken to embed improved management of contract research staff is by the funding councils."

As part of the ongoing review of research, the funding councils have already considered withholding the top 5* research ratings from departments that fail to provide adequate research training.David Pilsbury, head of research policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said: "The report's recommendations very much resonate with the discussions we have had in the fundamental review. People embarking on a research career are one of our greatest resources and we need to make sure they get the proper support and training they deserve."

Both Lord Sainsbury and Baroness Warwick, chief executive of the CVCP, said they supported the recommendations of the report. Baroness Warwick said:

"Universities will need to take account of the challenging targets that the report sets for them, and to continue to learn from the best practice that is being established in the sector."

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