There's safety in networks

November 26, 2004

Good policy is rarely developed in isolation from the group it affects. Unfortunately, traditional communication systems used to encourage dialogue with permanent university staff seldom work for researchers, 93 per cent of whom are employed on contracts of three years or less.

Short-term contracts have an impact on researchers' attitudes to their work and their employer. They also limit their ability to undertake activities outside their research contract. To counteract this, university communication systems need to be adapted.

If contract researchers are to undertake activities not directly linked to securing their next contract, universities must make a compelling case that they can help shape university policy. Many career contract researchers feel disenfranchised. They need to be convinced that participating in postdoctorate networks will achieve results.

Such networks should start at departmental level and aim to connect with as many contract researchers as possible. This will ensure that the full breadth of their opinions is taken into account, though there is still the danger that only the views of those motivated enough to participate will be heard. Communication at grassroots level will also help universities disseminate information to this group more effectively.

Universities must provide fully funded administrative support for the network. This would encourage contract researchers to contribute without overburdening them or putting their research activities (and hence their next contracts) at risk.

The first job of any contract researcher taking part in the network should be to recruit their replacement. A typical research-led university loses more contract researchers every year than any other category of staff. For example, a year after 12 postdoctorates set up the Cambridge network, PdOC, only one of the founders remained. Postdoctorate networks fail unless this problem is addressed.

Rachel Flecker is a lecturer at Bristol University. Prior to this she set up and maintained postdoctoral networks at two universities.

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