Contract researchers fear that the research assessment exercise is hampering universities' efforts to switch staff from fixed-term contracts to permanent ones in line with European Union regulations.
The Association for Researchers in Medicine and Science, which surveyed the sector on its progress towards meeting the regulations, also warned that universities could have to make many redundancies when the rules take effect in summer unless they make plans now.
The ARMS surveyed 80 universities conducting significant medical or scientific research to see how many of their contract research staff had been given permanent contracts. Bristol was way ahead, with 55 per cent of its contract research staff on permanent contracts. The figure confirmed a snapshot reported in The Times Higher last week.
In most universities, the survey found, 70 per cent of contract research staff remain on fixed-term contracts. David Jessop, the new ARMS chairman, said: "Our concern is that unless universities budget now to place contract research staff on permanent contracts, significant numbers will be made redundant from July."
EU regulations mean that from July staff who have been employed on two or more successive contracts for at least four years must be offered permanent contracts unless the university can "objectively justify" the continued use of fixed-term contracts.
Dr Jessop added: "We believe that the 2008 RAE is a major distraction for universities and that they are ignoring these regulations." He said there was much confusion about how the RAE would affect contract researchers. The final guidance for RAE panels is not due until next week.
However, a spokesperson for the Higher Education Funding Council for England said: "Universities have always been able to enter contract research staff - subject to their meeting the definition of research-active staff - in the RAE, and nothing will change in 2008. The type of contract held by an academic is irrelevant."
The ARMS survey also found that in the past 12 months universities had made between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of their contract research staff redundant.
"What is interesting is that Bristol comes right in the middle of this range, with 16 per cent of its contract research staff made redundant," Dr Jessop said. "The university has proved that it is possible to switch a high percentage of staff to permanent posts without increasing redundancies."
Jane Thompson, policy officer at the Association of University Teachers, said: "The AUT is concerned at the slow progress being made. We believe that employers, with a few notable exceptions, are burying their heads in the sand and not facing up to their legal and moral obligations in relation to their fixed-term staff."