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Unions 2000 Thursday, 11 May, 2000, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
'Life-saving' researchers see no future
woman using microscope
Reports expose continuing plight of university contract staff
Two thirds of medical researchers employed on contracts say they can see no future for their careers.

A survey of more than 300 researchers in specialist Medical Research Council institutes also suggests they are not impressed with performance-related pay.


It should be of great concern to everyone ... that a substantial proportion of the scientists involved in life-saving medical research, see no long-term future

Union leader David Triesman
The survey coincides with the release of a report on how universities are managing their contract researchers.

That report, from an inquiry team headed by Sheffield University's vice-chancellor, Sir Gareth Roberts, says things have improved in recent years - but a lot still needs to be done.

The survey of medical researchers was carried out by the Association of University Teachers, which is holding its annual conference in Eastbourne.

Among the main findings:

  • a poor career structure is the greatest employment worry: only one third believe they have a research career ahead of them
  • the current pay system does not motivate them
  • over half in the survey work at least 48 hours a week
  • a substantial proportion of staff employed on fixed-term contracts have their contracts extended repeatedly
  • some have to take a pay cut to get a new contract.
  • when a contract ends, staff are not consulted or given proper career guidance.
The association's general secretary, David Triesman, said: "It should be of great concern to everyone and the Medical Research Council in particular, that a substantial proportion of the scientists involved in life-saving medical research, see no long-term future in their chosen career.

"It amounts to negligence on the part of the MRC. The best research inevitably results from teamwork where each person feels valued and in return is fully committed to their work."

These concerns are echoed in the report on the management of higher education's 30,000 contract researchers, the second from the Research Careers Initiative chaired by Sir Gareth Roberts.

'Marginalised'

It says more contract staff are getting annual appraisals and training, and only a few believed they did not have equal access with established staff to university facilities.

But contract staff were often unable or unwilling to take up the broader training available.

Too many still felt marginalised in the affairs of their department or university.

Half had no post to go to at the end of a contract.

The report recommends that the various councils which fund higher education should reward steps to develop research staff's careers.

Sir Gareth said: "We are clear that the single most important initiative that can now be taken to embed improved management of contract research staff is by the funding councils.

"At present, the funding systems offer academics little incentive to attend to the career needs of their researchers.

"The stakes are high.

"The knowledge-driven economy depends ... on the attractiveness and visibility of career paths into and out of academic research."

'Not there yet'

The Science Minister Lord Sainsbury said he commended the efforts that were being made.

"But we are obviously not there yet. We must consolidate and accelerate progress.

"I ask university employers, funding bodies, and all those involved to address the report's clear recommendations.

"Research staff are key players in sustaining the excellence of UK research, and in stimulating innovation in the wider economy. We - and they - must get their career development right."

The report says suitable targets for the sector to achieve by end 2001 might include:

  • those receiving regular appraisal to increase from 51% to more than 60%, with less than 10% dissatisfied with the experience
  • an increase of at least 10 percentage points in the proportion benefiting from broader experiences - taking up related training and feeling they are participating adequately in institutional or departmental affairs
  • the proportion with a definite post to go to at the end of their contracts to increase from 52% to more than 60%.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England said it was paying for a substantial bid from a consortium of institutions to pilot new approaches to the whole issue.

The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council said it was investing in "human resource management" and looking at the training and development of research staff as part of a review of research funding.

See also:

09 Dec 99 | UK Education
18 Jan 00 | UK Education
15 Jun 99 | UK Education
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