MPs have blamed "callous and short-sighted" management in UK universities for landing higher education with a proportion of fixed-term contract staff which is second only to the catering industry.
The research councils and government were also accused by the House of Commons science and technology select committee of contributing to a situation that was demoralising researchers and damaging the science base.
In a report published on Wednesday, the committee says many scientists lack a coherent career structure as a result of being employed on a string of short-term contracts.
According to the MPs, half of all researchers in science and technology - 40,000 in universities - are employed in this way.
The report says that universities under financial pressure hire researchers on contracts that match the duration of external research grants to save money. "The university places all the risk over its future research income on to the researchers," it says.
David Stevenson, a contracted researcher at Leicester University, told the committee that a series of fixed contracts made it difficult to consolidate a career path. "Unless you get a lectureship... you are basically stuck with no career. Once you reach 30, you are in serious trouble," he said.
Researchers then faced an uncertain future with the prospect of having to move university and to switch the focus of their work. The union Amicus said this had "a detrimental effect on the health and wellbeing" of staff.
The report says projects could be left unfinished as staff looked to their next job and that a "brain drain from risky to safe research areas" had developed. "The research in our universities suffers in such a climate. Only the catering industry employs a higher proportion of fixed-term contract workers," the report concludes.
The report says: "It is hard to identify a single culprit for the continuing mistreatment of our research workforce, but top of the list must be a management culture in some of our research-intensive universities, which is callous and short-sighted."
While some institutions have tried to improve management of contract staff, the report says others are unlikely to act unless forced by law or financial penalty.
It calls for those not complying with the good practice guidelines issued by the research careers initiative to be named and shamed. It notes that Sir Gareth Roberts said the funding councils were considering whether to make an element of a university's block grant dependent on good management of contract research staff.
The report adds: "University management must change... not just at the top level but in the way individual departments and research teams are managed."
It says it is possible that the present system could ultimately cost universities as much as it saves.
The MPs attack the "ostrich-like behaviour of the research councils, which seem to see the research base as a production line operated by automatons".
They say the councils fail to recognise that their grants are as much investments in people as research, while shamefully passing the buck to universities.
The committee says the government must share the blame and recognise that it has to fund measures to give contract research staff a secure career.
It calls on researchers themselves to take responsibility for their careers and notes that many do not take up training opportunities offered to them.
Universities UK dismissed the report as unhelpful. It accused the committee of downplaying the financial problems that underlay the high proportion of contract staff in some universities.
Diana Warwick, chief executive of UUK, said the report ignored the efforts made by university managers to improve working conditions while operating within severe financial constraints.
"Universities are tackling the problems experienced by short-term research staff and it would have been more helpful had the select committee sought to assist universities to build on the work they have done," she said.
Lecturers' unions welcomed the report. Paul Mackney, general secretary of Natfhe, said: "It is scandalous that universities have been exposed as second only to fast-food burger outlets in their exploitation of temporary contract workers."