Fixed-term research posts are being phased out by Scottish universities although there is no sign of an improvement in salaries for those moving from temporary contracts.
The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council said it was "cautiously optimistic" about the number of contract researchers set to win permanent posts by 2006 when the Fixed-Term Employees Regulations 2002 take effect.
Shefc this week published its second annual report on contract research staff after ministers instructed institutions to cut the use of short-term contracts.
The report shows that between 1999-2000 and 2002-03, the increase in the number of permanent researchers outstripped the rise in contracted staff numbers, a rise of 20.5 per cent compared with 11.8 per cent for those on fixed-term contracts. Over the same period, numbers of staff whose permanent contracts focused primarily on research rose by 108 per cent, and research grant and contract income rose by 34 per cent.
A Shefc spokesperson said: "Based on our findings, we are cautiously optimistic that the next two years will show significant improvements in the proportion of researchers in permanent employment. We believe that all Scottish institutions are acting to minimise the number of contract research staff, prevent less favourable treatment of such staff, and comply with European Union regulations on fixed-term staff."
But Shefc found no sign of a narrowing of gap in salaries. The average salary for a researcher on a fixed-term contract in 2002-03 was £20,000-Pounds 25,000. This compared with £25,000-£30,000 for non-contract staff.
The report says this is likely to reflect the shorter average length of service of contract researchers, the relative ease in recruiting them and the pressure of research grant competition to keep wages down.
The Association of University Teachers Scotland welcomed Shefc's report and said it hoped the optimism for the future was well placed. Tony Axon, research officer for the AUTS, said: "We are still concerned about the large number of people on fixed-term contracts, especially given that institutions need to act on the legislation by July 2006.
"We are disappointed that more people have not been moved from fixed-term contracts by now and, although we welcome the survey, which suggests that institutions are planning to reduce the number of contract research staff, the process is very slow at the moment." Shefc surveyed 16 higher education institutions, three of which said they had no such staff. Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heriot-Watt and Strathclyde universities accounted for 86 per cent of all Scottish contract research staff.
By last autumn, every institution said it had a strategy for moving long-term contract research staff to permanent contracts.