The Scottish Parliament has called for action to give contract researchers improved status and greater job security.
A debate on the plight of contract researchers had to be extended beyond its expected deadline because of the number of MSPs wanting to speak. There was cross-party praise for contract researchers as crucial to the success of the Scottish Executive's knowledge economy and science strategies.
The debate was called by Alex Neil, of the Scottish National Party, convenor of the enterprise and lifelong learning committee. He said there were 5,000 contract researchers in Scotland, 94 per cent on fixed-term contracts.
He read a letter from a mathematician who was now in Germany after he failed to develop an academic career in Scotland. "After a series of poorly paid short-term contracts, he moved into industry where he was offered a permanent job, twice his university salary and a lucrative bonus package into the bargain. Our best and brightest are leaving Scotland because they do not have the job prospects, the security and the pay that they deserve," Mr Neil said.
Labour MSP Elaine Murray, a former contract researcher, told how she had left three projects early, changing specialisms each time and once changing institution. "As soon as one gets halfway through a contract, one is looking to see where the next contract will come from. That is not a good way to conduct research. The project is not completed if somebody leaves early and it is unlikely that anybody else will pick up the contract if there is only a year left."
Alasdair Morrison, deputy minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, said the executive had no direct control of university staffing, but it could give clear leadership and guidance as a principal source of funding. It could ask Shefc to find ways of encouraging good practice, and collect annual information on the proportion of staff on short-term contracts.
The Association of University Teachers Scotland has proposed three options for change. Under the "flexibility model", researchers would have an open-ended contract with career planning and staff development help from their first day at work.
The "collaboration model" would offer job security within an area, allowing the researcher to work in several institutions. The "enterprise model" would seek funding from development agency Scottish Enterprise to promote open-ended secondments from industry, the professions and the public sector, as well as internal secondments.