Contracts cop-out under fire from MPs

March 7, 2003

The Commons science and technology committee has expressed frustration that the government has failed to commit to a definite move away from short-term research contracts.

The government issued its response to the select committee's highly critical report on short-term research contracts in science and engineering this week.

Ministers acknowledged many of the committee's concerns about the high proportion of researchers working on fixed-term contracts.

But the response claimed that the cumulative effects of the Research Careers Initiative (RCI), the implementation of the Roberts review via the government's new science strategy, and the 2002 spending review allocations, would do much to improve the career prospects of these researchers.

Ian Gibson, the committee's chair, said the response did not go far enough.

"The government recognises that there is a problem and it recognises that it has to do something about it, but ultimately it is not sure how to go about it as it would have to give universities more money to enable them to plan," he said.

In particular, Dr Gibson dismissed the government's praise for the concordat on the management of fixed-term contract staff, which was agreed in 1996 by institutions and key research funders. The government stated that the RCI, which monitors the progress towards meeting the commitments of the concordat, had transformed the culture of staff employment in universities.

But Dr Gibson said: "They have failed completely as many people don't know what the concordat is and haven't seen the effects of it. It offers no real answers to the problem."

Save British Science reacted angrily to the government's statement, accusing it of "ridiculous" complacency. The organisation was concerned that the response suggested that the problems had been solved when it felt there was still a long way to go.

Peter Cotgreave, director of SBS, argued that the key problem was that there was no money available to be distributed at the discretion of local managers within institutions, with which to "tide over" researchers whose contracts had come to an end. He said: "This response is nonsense, and harmful nonsense as it will exacerbate the situation."

Universities UK broadly welcomed the document, but stressed that the government had to go further and provide specific funding to allow universities to improve the career development of their short-term contract research staff.

"We hope and expect that the review of the dual support system will support and reflect these costs," a UUK spokesperson said.

Speaking at the launch of the Association of University Teachers Scotland's researcher job security campaign in Edinburgh this week, Dr Gibson said that the debate on reforming research contracts had been muted, despite researchers being central to universities' work.

He said it was essential to eradicate job insecurity if the country was to make full use of researchers' creativity but there were still loopholes in legislation. He said his ambition was for the words "contract research staff" to disappear for ever from universities, with institutions taking on staff only if they could offer them a permanent post.

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