A House of Lords probe into university scientists' careers has concluded that contract research staff should have the same status and rights as established colleagues of equivalent rank.
The plight of such staff in universities has been a major concern of the Lords science and technology committee during its investigation. Its report, published this week, says that universities as employers of contract staff should have "sound policies for their management including regular and open assessment and appraisal". Big improvments in counselling, career advice and retraining are also needed.
The report says that institutions should ensure that contract researchers can participate, where appropriate, in university policy and decision-making and have access to the amenities and facilities available to academics with permanent posts.
A major barrier for women pursuing careers in science is the lack of support for maternity leave. It is the responsibility of institutions to remove structural barriers to the employment of women in science by strengthening maternity provisions, childcare facilities and retraining programmes wherever possible, the Lords say.
There has been an explosion in the numbers of contract staff over the past two decades and this increase has not been matched by increases in any other category of academic employment in institutions.
During 1977/78 there were 32,000 wholly university funded teaching and research staff compared to 32,750 in 1993/94. By contrast the number of contract staff specialising in research grew by 217 per cent over the same period, mushrooming from 5,900 in 1977/78 to 18,600 in 1993/94.
For short-term contract researchers, one of the most distressing features of their careers is the uncertainty associated with securing the following stint of work. The Lords say that much could be done to improve the situation if universities earmarked "bridging" funds to eliminate disruptive short gaps for the staff they wish to retain.
The report warns universities that if they wish to fill vacancies in established posts with high quality individuals in five to ten years, they would be wise to create prestigious longer term fellowships now. The Lords point to the success which the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust and the University of Warwick have had with such schemes.
House of Lords report on Academic Research Careers for Graduate Scientists. Available from HMSO, Pounds 12.95.