Contractual Obligation

By: David Bradley

An increasing trend towards the casual employment of scientists has placed many higher education researchers on shaky ground. They face funding difficulties, a lack of respect, and financial troubles. Whether initiatives in the United Kingdom will have a positive effect on these researchers is debatable.

The great bugbear of many scientists is the fixed-term contract. With the PhD thesis wrapped up and the first post-doctoral position under the belt, many would hope their next working relationship might be something a little more lasting, almost permanent, even. But it seems the contract researcher is here to stay. And many scientists of all ages find themselves perpetually signing new contracts. Contract research staff rely on outside funding.

Contract research staff (CRS) are employed by all of the higher education institutions in the United Kingdom, but it is the research councils, the European Union, and other nonprofit organizations that generally provide the financing.

Until recently, the funding bodies were reluctant to recognize a problem. "What is not fully appreciated by the research councils is the extent to which the scientific contributions of CRS underpin the output of tenured staff," says astrophysicist Elizabeth Griffin, professional visitor at the University of Oxford. "Without them the universities would achieve miserable ratings, yet the very producers of that excellence have rudely poor prospects, no status, must spend large fractions of their time finding the next grant, and have rock-bottom morale in consequence." The increasing proportion of CRS in institutions and raised awareness of CRS insecurities, coupled with rising pressure from employee associations, are making the issue one of increasing concern. CVCP tried to equalize working conditions between CRS and tenured staff.

In March 1996, the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) - known since December 2000 as Universities UK and representing all university heads - agreed to a Concordat with funding bodies to attempt to clarify the employers' responsibilities and those of the contract workers themselves, mainly with regard to career advice and maternity leave. The basic idea was to ensure that CRS should have working conditions comparable to that of tenured staff, although this is not the same as ensuring equivalence in remuneration, job description, career development, or promotion prospects.

Whether such fine proposals are effectively implemented continues to raise the hackles of many contract workers and those involved in the research world. Adam Drury, formerly of Liverpool University, who was involved in producing chemistry courses online, highlighted one serious problem facing CRS - financial insecurity. CRS might be short-term, but, unlike many contractor colleagues in industry, they are not paid at a level that compensates for this insecurity. Even when Drury had secured a contract, he and his wife faced a serious challenge in convincing mortgage providers they were an economically viable risk when attempting to buy their first house. Involuntary staff turnover is a growing problem.

It might seem that for those stepping on the research ladder, a long-term position is inevitable. However, this is not the case. Involuntary staff turnover is a growing problem. There are some 155,000 academic staff in the United Kingdom with roughly half that number being in atypical employment: temporary, fixed-term, and part-time contracts.

At Manchester University, for instance, the percentage of academic and related staff on fixed contracts is about 60 percent, having increased from 50 percent just three or four years ago (this figure is 65 percent for OxBridge). According to Manchester's Ann Apps, "It is across the board, all departments and all job types." Higher education has become one of the most casualized areas of employment in the United Kingdom. The Association of University Teachers (AUT) is attempting to reduce the number of staff on temporary contracts by taking a proposal to restrict the use of such contracts to each institution. "I'd channel more funding into personal fellowships."

From the point of view of research, short-termism cannot work either. Rod Dillon of Bath University suggests that the way research is funded has to be changed. "I'd channel more funding into personal fellowships to give contract staff more of a chance to develop their own research ideas," he told us.

The Concordat does recognize some of the cons. It says, "limited opportunities and the insecurity arising from a succession of fixed-term contracts create tensions which have been compounded by the demands of other priorities on scarce resources, resulting in less investment in the career management and development of contract research staff than might otherwise have been the case." Talented and trained staff are unnecessarily lost from research while others are shuffled from contract to contract with research and morale suffering. It is inevitable, for instance, that CRS will have to spend time and effort looking for a new position towards their contracts' end. One can only assume that in the long term there is a lot of wasted time and effort accrued during staff changeovers and in terms of contract and funding renewal. Demoralized teachers lack resources for research.

"It affects research staff on at least two levels," says Stephen Hopkins, chairman of the Association of Researchers in Medicine and Science (ARMS), "there are the highly innovative, frontier scientists who generate exciting new ideas, and it is these that we hear about losing abroad or being dissuaded from entering science." The posts these people often secure are academic teaching posts through which an institution might gain a lecturer, but their skills at the technical and practical innovation level are not so fully exploited because of their non-research commitments.

Despite the negatives, excellent research emerges from the labs of the short-term contractor. Dillon mentioned that recently he received another three-year contract. "This is the first time I have one contract running on from another without a 'gap,'" he said. "This is a BBSRC contract for a project grant, but because I am not tenured staff I cannot even be named as coapplicant - even though the work is all mine and I cowrote the grant application." Contracts reduce research group continuity unless there is a permanent core researcher. "One may find that no one knows how to use a particular piece of equipment that has been used in the lab for many years because of the turnover of CRS," Dillon says. Griffin spent 29 years on contract after contract.

According to Griffin writing in New Scientist, "Fewer than one in ten of the highly motivated academic postdoctoral scientists in Britain now go on to secure a university position, and the prospects of a respectable career that go with it." Griffin is near the top of her field in astrophysics and chairs an international working group, but spent 29 years on contract after contract, for which she obtained the funds herself, at Cambridge University, until she was 52 and there was no more sources of grants and she had to leave Cambridge. If CRS were more valued and their skills utilized fully, the national need to raise competitiveness in science might be addressed immediately, she believes.

What has caused this trend toward increased casual employment? "The reason is simple," says Apps. "The research is funded for a fixed term, as defined in the funding proposal, by the funding bodies, the university will issue job contracts only where the money for salaries is guaranteed and will not or cannot underwrite job contracts for the longer term." Apps points out that "bridging" funding is not available, which she says shows "nervousness about new funding becoming available." Economics is the issue, not research quality. Postdocs are in limbo much longer than originally intended.

Behind the problem lie financial politics. "Universities did not expand in terms of faculty in tandem with the expansions in student numbers in the 1960s and 1970s," explains Griffin. "There were not enough permanent staff to undertake all the necessary teaching and also manage all the research and keep universities abreast of new developments, as well as maintain hot competition." Increasing research complexity meant outside expertise was more commonly required for projects, and young postdocs were retained in contractual limbo for much longer than originally intended.

"There is no loyalty from departments as far as I can see," bemoans Dillon, "some permanent staff seem to believe that if you haven't got a permanent position then you are simply not good enough and should get out of research . . . contract researchers often have skills and expertise that are underexploited and unrecognized." Alan Williams, who is on the AUT's CRS committee, prefers the word commitment, "Researchers," he said, "will often try to be committed, accepting gaps between contracts, pay cuts, etc., to continue doing work. On the other hand, universities are not committed at all." The universities, he adds, "need to see the money on the table before they will issue a contract. . . . This may not keep their costs down since they're constantly hiring and firing, and CRS are constantly considering their futures, research teams are broken up or disrupted, leading to inefficiencies." Senior staff don't see that the style of employment has changed.

Williams blames the increase in short-termism primarily on the rapid rise in the number of CRS employed on externally funded research projects. "It's been relatively quick, really, which is a problem since more senior [established] staff in [the institutions] seem not to recognize that the style of employment has changed." he explains. "The recent HEFCE Review of Research typifies this by virtually ignoring CRS, considering them only as junior trainee assistants." It talks of casualization as being an "opportunity" rather than a problem. Hopkins at ARMS feels the problem is not new at all; ARMS was formed in 1978 because of this issue. "This was becoming an issue in medical and biological sciences then," he says. "It is probably still the most affected area [in number terms], but it has now spread more to other areas."

CRS positions are not a stopgap between receiving a Ph.D. and a lectureship, and many researchers view research itself as a career rather than seeing teaching as a major aim. Some career researchers have a higher profile than their permanent "researcher lecturer" colleagues, which should be seen as a great asset for an institution to have, and one to nurture rather than to deride and stifle through poor contractual terms. Indeed, the Concordat points out that "an established career in academia or, exclusively, academic research, is realistic for only a minority." That is the problem. "The current system generally treats people at this level as a disposable commodity," laments Hopkins. Despite the claims that change and relocation helps "propagate knowledge within the research community," individuals suffer, especially when family commitments are compromised. "This argument is a red herring," says Apps, "introduced to excuse bad employment practices, retaining experience must be more important." The European Union won't allow contracts to be abused.

Various initiatives within the United Kingdom have been attempting for the last few years to improve the situation for CRS, but it might be that European directives eventually force employers to take a long-term view of short-term contracts. The European Union emphasizes that contracts must not be abused and that contractors have to be blessed with the same rights and treatment as permanent staff, although as it stands the European Union only considers renewals. Importantly, though, it says extenuating circumstances are necessary for contractors to be kept on effectively and permanently through successive contracts, with institutions having to agree on "objective reasons."

Although society invests heavily in education, that investment is frittered away as contracts expire. "Virtually all proposals for addressing the 'problem' of casualization," says Williams, "have concentrated on 'managing' staff on fixed-term contracts, rather than seriously reducing numbers, and the benefits this would produce." Griffin adds that "there is no way, financially, that CRS can be offered better prospects without a complete revamping of the system." Individual scientists have to be valued over next month's budget figures. Hopkins has the last word: "It is time," he says, "the United Kingdom recognized scientific research as a profession in its own right."

This article by David Bradley originally appeared in HMSBeagle!

Also in Issue 75
The growing problem of biopiracy
Grids for chemists
Deep-sea exploration - scientists under pressure
forensic science

Previously, in Elemental Discoveries:
Accidents will happen
Predicting climate change
Green silicon production
P2P for scientists
Women in science
Academic poaching of researchers
Permanent implantable contact lenses
Profile of ETH Zurich
Paradoxical ozone

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