Short shrift for short-termism

October 21, 2005

Funding bodies are hampering universities' bid to improve the lot of contract staff, says Rachel Flecker

It is encouraging to see universities tackling the casualisation of research staff, but their efforts to improve conditions are undermined by research funders.

In the UK, academia comes second only to the catering industry in its use of temporary labour. Most of those employed on short-term contracts by universities are researchers. Yet unlike chefs and waiters who are paid by the restaurant that employs them, research staff are paid through their university, but not by it.

Most research staff salaries derive from external sources of funding such as the research councils, charities and the Government. As a result, despite acting for all legal purposes as the employer, a university's ability to reward research staff is limited. This affects not only job security but also pay, progression and promotion.

Funding bodies influence researcher pay indirectly. Take the case of a research associate employed by a university to work on a project funded by a research council. The principal investigator, an aspiring professor, is eager to increase his funding stream and knows grant applications must keep salary costs low. Given the choice between poorly paid employment and leaving academia, the researcher accepts a low salary.

Research councils claim that higher salaries can be paid where justified.

But how easy is it to justify a readership-level salary for a researcher on a grant? In modernising pay structures, universities are attempting to eliminate or justify discrepancies between salary and role to ensure equal wages for work of equal value. But without more generous salaries from funding bodies, how successful is this likely to be? Researchers are likely to be made to work either at a lower level to justify their low pay or, as now, at a higher level than their job description and pay indicate.

With both pay and job description failing to reflect performance, accruing evidence to support promotion can be difficult. At higher research grades where evidence of an ability to generate a research income stream is required, barriers to promotion are exacerbated by restrictive eligibility rules set by funding bodies. These prevent most research staff from being principal investigators on their own projects.

This means that even if the project was entirely conceived and written by a researcher, there is nothing that identifies this unambiguously. Instead, credit and responsibility goes to the academic eligible to sign the application. Researchers seeking promotion are therefore reliant on these signatories to attribute the successful grant honestly. Although many principal investigators behave with integrity, the concomitant reduction of their own grant success inevitably discourages honest attribution.

It is possible that researchers accepting low pay and limited scope for promotion will be helped by future fixed-term contract legislation.

However, redeployment of specialist staff is difficult, and most university career paths favour the generalist.

Until institutions can decouple employment practice from the limitations of an externally imposed funding system, little will change for researchers.

Rachel Flecker is a lecturer in geographical sciences and a member of the Research Staff Working Party at Bristol University.

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