Scotland is in the vanguard of creating a better deal for contract research staff, according to Gus Pennington, acting director of the Universities and Colleges Staff Development Agency.
He told a Scottish Higher Education Funding Council conference on managing careers in research that a coherent framework of conditions across Britain was crucial to close the indefensibly wide gap between best and worst practice.
Professor Pennington, representing the research careers initiative group set up by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals to monitor the effects of last year's concordat on research staff careers, said SHEFC-funded pilot projects ranging from careers guidance to research management skills were a "wonderful" basis for improvements across the country.
Juliet Cheetham, coordinator of the SHEFC initiative, said she had been "grieved and shocked" by the way contract researchers were marginalised by their institutions, albeit often unintentionally. Academics must overcome their resistance to research management and see it as an interesting and creative task rather than a pressure to do more with less, she said.
"Good practice is possible without huge financial cost," Professor Cheetham said. "Institutions need clarity about the shape of their academic workforce and about how short-term staff fit into the structure. There should be a recognised and honourable place for fixed-term staff."
A major grievance of contract researchers is the use of waiver clauses in fixed-term contracts, under which they forfeit rights to claim statutory redundancy payments and unfair dismissal.
Heriot-Watt University, the host of the SHEFC conference, announced that its contract researchers will no longer have to waive redundancy payments. They already have unfair dismissal rights.
Gareth Elston, the Association of University Teachers' contract research staff representative at Heriot-Watt, said: "In many universities, research staff feel excluded from opportunities open to permanent academic colleagues. Heriot-Watt is offering a new approach that makes overall conditions attractive and will improve morale and the sense of being part of an academic community."