Fixed but insecure

August 6, 2004

Contract researchers are the 'have-nots' of academia. This must change, says Jo Aldridge.

Although researchers on fixed-term contracts make up about 30 per cent of the academic-related workforce in UK universities, most feel marginalised and excluded from academic life.

This is perhaps not surprising, given the fixed-term nature of their employment. I became a "member" of my university only when I was made a research fellow a couple of years ago, even though I had been a research associate there for more than ten years. But this does not mean I have any employment security. I still have to seek the funds to keep myself in work.

Indeed, my own institution's recent survey of contract research staff revealed that concerns about job security were top of the list of researchers' anxieties. It is hard to imagine many other jobs where, as an employee, you are always responsible for finding your own wage to stay in employment, but where the more experience and expertise you gain, the less likely you are to stay in that job. This is because your salary becomes one of the most expensive items on a research proposal and you are in real danger of pricing yourself out of the market.

Further, given the importance of research to academic institutions, it seems perverse that those who are often the main or even sole person responsible for conducting research, analysing data and disseminating findings may not be included in the research assessment exercise.

So why do it? It can be rewarding and can, depending on the research you do, make a huge difference to people's lives. In the right circumstances, being a researcher can also allow you to develop a substantial publications profile and can offer a degree of flexibility and independence from administrative tasks. The downside is that research is rarely a long-term prospect, nor is it commonly seen as a valid career.

One of the reasons for this is that, in terms of academic institutions, researchers are only ever associated or affiliated to the academy. We are, after all, "academic-related" staff. The cynic in me would suggest that in this association we are always the poor relation.

And yet much of our work is academic in nature - we contribute to teaching, give presentations at conferences and write those all-important refereed journal articles in academic publications. Considering the pressures on academic staff to be more research active, the distinction between us increasingly escapes me - bar the fact that we don't have the teaching and administrative duties of other staff. But, then again, we don't have access to study leave or enjoy the status that an academic identity confers.

This is not necessarily the fault, however, of universities. The key to the problem lies, I believe, in a system that confers less status or recognition on the subjects who conduct the research than on the subject(s) of the research itself.

More importantly, the way that funding is gained is pernicious, in that grants are on the whole contractual in nature and rely on the willingness of researchers to undertake piecemeal and finite pieces of work that can mean employers may see little point in undertaking any duty of care or responsibility (for research career development, and so on).

This lack of status or recognition can contribute to a feeling of marginalisation and apathy. So what is to be done? There is little to be gained simply by bemoaning our lot. One of the key ways to move forward would be to address the polarity that prevails between what could be seen as the "haves" and the "have-nots", that is, between academic and "academic-related" staff.

This would mean challenging prejudices and misconceptions about the role and status of research staff in universities and looking at the kind of hierarchies that allow academics to put their names first on articles, grant bids and so on that have in fact been written by researchers. Given the principles underpinning the research assessment exercise, this is something that is likely to continue unless checked by the introduction of formal protocols for joint working practice.

Another way of moving forwards would be to establish a permanent body of research expertise in departments or faculties. This would be beneficial to researchers and teaching staff and would allow proper access to career development.

It would also be highly advantageous if increments were retained so that researchers did not have to start again at the bottom of the salary scale should they move to another post.

More emphasis also needs to be placed on research as a recognised and valid career opportunity with appropriate personal and professional induction and development. Equality of opportunity is essential. Researchers should enjoy equal rights to periods of study leave so they can develop existing and new research ideas without having to "steal" time where they can to quickly thrash out research bids to stay in work.

Such moves, if implemented formally and consistently across universities, would, I believe, go some way towards addressing and overcoming the poor relation association of contract research staff that seems to prevail within academic institutions.

Jo Aldridge is a researcher in the department of social sciences at Loughborough University.

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