Scots act to ease contract solitude

November 28, 1997

THE ACADEMIC life of a contract researcher can frequently fit all of Hobbes's dismal description: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

But the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council is taking a lead in improving the situation with a Pounds 200,000 initiative designed to share good practice among institutions, which it hopes will give them a competitive edge in attracting and retaining the best researchers.

A report on the initiative will be launched on Monday at a conference bringing together senior academics responsible for research, principal investigators, often the line managers of contract research staff, as well as the researchers themselves.

Contract researchers are likely to have been high-fliers as students but then find themselves excluded from the mainstream of academic life, on one- or two-year contracts, often without access to staff development, and their names omitted from research publications.

Their plight was recognised in last year's concordat which expects many of their rights to become comparable to those of established staff. But there has been little evidence of improvement since then.

David Bleiman, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, says: "Two of the key problems with the concordat are the fact that a lot of people don't know about it, and the need to make sure it is properly implemented on the ground."

"The SHEFC initiative has scored with an actively managed approach in the Scottish universities, and by developing a network of enthusiasts who are making sure that the concordat is actively implemented," Mr Bleiman says.

Making research more rewarding has implications throughout the institution, says national coordinator of the initiative, Juliet Cheetham. There needs to be properly planned induction of researchers, and career development that includes helping them assess their skills and experience for work outside higher education.

Better standards in research management are vital, the initiative believes. It has funded projects that have developed courses and written material for academics and researchers. Other projects focus on career development.

Paul Hunt, who has been existing on one- to three-year contracts in biochemistry and molecular biology at Edinburgh University since 1981, praises the excellence of the initiative but warns there is still a "missing main track" of a career structure in institutions.

"The research system brings in people at the bottom who are very cheap, gives them research skills, and then, at the very point when they should be becoming most productive and generating the most valuable breakthroughs, most of them are discarded. That's a criminal waste of resources," he says. He suggests finding a way of restricting the numbers both coming in and going out.

Linda Jenkins, now a part-time researcher in social psychology at Stirling University following the end of a major five-year project, agrees that institutions should see researchers' skills and experience as something worth investing in and create some job security.

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