Toothsome prospects

March 8, 1996

Something is about to be done about the plight of contract researchers. The number of fixed-term contract researchers in higher education mushroomed between 1980 and 1993 from around 8,000 to 18,000. With many contracts limited to at most three years, insecurity, preoccupation with getting the next contract and lack of any national policy has meant that conditions of employment are abysmal and morale and esteem often low.

Last year the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, the research councils and the Royal Society thrashed out draft terms for a new concordat, their efforts boosted by a House of Lords science and technology select committee inquiry. These were well received. Provided subsequent consultation has not unduly weakened the original, the final concordat due to be published soon offers a real chance for improvement.

The test, however, will be in the implementation. A crucial part will be played by the research councils and the Royal Society - both of whom will "wish to be satisfied", said the draft, that their grants and fellowships are going to institutions who have effective policies for career management and contracts. These strong words need to be in the final agreement.

Implementation should not mean creating costly new bureaucracies, but there must be measures to ensure some comeback on institutions which abuse public funds by failing to treat their contract staff fairly as stipulated in what will be, it must be stressed, an official Government-backed document. Effective monitoring of progress made by institutions in implementing the proposals will be crucial.

No one should underestimate the difficulty. In the run-up to the research assessment deadline this month, large numbers of researchers have been hired on short contracts. There is no way institutions will be able to afford to keep everyone. As chief executives of research councils repeatedly pointed out during the Lords inquiry, deflating the bulge of contract researchers is going to be a tall order. There are too few permanent positions and, with money so short, there are not likely to be more of them.

Universities will have to be frank to researchers about their career prospects and should give professional advice on such matters. Researchers will also have to think carefully about their careers, act constructively on advice and seek out independent counselling if they feel it necessary.

The only comfort is that a new government may make research and development tax deductible for businesses. In that case today's stockpile of trained researchers could suddenly find new demand for their services.

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