Contract Research Staff

– in the Scottish Parliament at 12:31 pm on 22nd November 2001.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 12:31 pm, 22nd November 2001

Members' business today is a debate on motion S1M-2184, in the name of Alex Neil, on contract research staff. I call for silence in the chamber.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises that contract research staff in Scotland's universities and research institutes are one of the most significant assets in Scotland's knowledge economy; notes that more than 90% of such staff are employed on insecure fixed term contracts, resulting in a systematic failure to properly exploit our science and social science base to the benefit of the Scottish economy and society; further notes that this highly educated human resource, comprising graduate, postgraduate and postdoctoral level workers, is subject to constant wastage, to the detriment of Scotland's universities and economic potential, and believes that the Scottish Executive should act with clarity, urgency and determination to secure a complete overhaul of the management of the contract research workforce with a view to eliminating the current insecurity and wastage and establishing a radical new approach in partnership with higher education employers and representatives of the research staff.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party 12:34 pm, 22nd November 2001

The business bulletin has two similar or parallel motions. The first, which we are about to debate, is in my name; the second, on people management in our universities, is in the name of Richard Simpson. I hope that we will have the opportunity in the near future to discuss Richard's motion as well as mine, because it covers various issues that I would certainly like to support—in particular, the need for equal pay for female academic staff in our universities.

My motion is specifically related to the plight of our contract research staff in the 14 universities in Scotland. There are 5,000 such staff and more than 94 per cent of them are employed on fixed-term contracts. Most contract research staff are in low-grade jobs: 57 per cent are on research grade 1A; 23 per cent are on research grade 1B; and only 10 per cent are on research grade 2. They face constant insecurity. Between 1998 and 2000, more than 80 per cent of contract research staff experienced a change in their contract, and more than 60 per cent experienced at least two changes.

Contract research staff often have relatively poor working conditions and long hours are fairly standard. In 66 per cent of cases, working hours were not stipulated. Long hours are endemic: 29 per cent report working between 49 and 59 hours a week, and 7 per cent report working 60 or more hours a week.

Career development opportunities are very limited. At any one time, around 40 per cent of contract research staff are actively seeking their next post. The most important factors leading to an exit from the job are insecurity, poor promotion prospects and low pay. Around one in three of contract research staff in post in 1998—the most recent year for which figures are available—had left by 2000.

Why is this such an important issue? We all acknowledge the importance of our universities and the research that they do. They are important to academic development and educational achievement, but they also make a wider contribution to Scottish society and the Scottish economy.

A few weeks ago, during private members' business, we had a debate on the value of nurses. There was unanimous agreement on the need to give our nurses the status that they deserve in our society. After two decades of campaigning, the time has come for us to give contract researchers in our universities the status that they deserve. They are often the seedcorn for development that is then taken up by full-time professional researchers. Without the support of those 5,000 contract researchers, many projects that have come to fruition would not have done so. Many contracts that come to Scotland would not do so without the intellectual and academic input of those contract researchers.

Scotland suffers because of the way in which we treat our contract researchers. Earlier this week, I received a letter from Germany, from Dr Jonathan Butler, who is a mathematician who tried to develop an academic career in Scotland. He was ready and willing to pass on his knowledge to future generations and to develop new theories and research. I will quote his letter:

"Trying to develop a university career in such a hostile environment was difficult, uncertain and demoralising."

After a series of poorly paid short-term contracts, he moved into industry where he was offered a permanent contract, twice his university salary and a lucrative bonus package into the bargain. Our best and brightest are leaving Scotland because they do not have the job prospects, the security and the pay that they deserve.

Without a dedicated and highly motivated contract research staff, the Executive will not be able to implement its science and knowledge strategies. We must realise that in order for the Parliament and the Executive to achieve what is set out in "A Smart Successful Scotland" and all the other strategy documents that we have discussed over the past two and a half years, we have to give our contract researchers their place. They are the people at the coalface. Often, in some of the most prestigious publications, if the names of the contract researchers appear at all, it is as a footnote. They are not given equality of esteem or status. They are not given the employment rights that they deserve.

The Association of University Teachers and others have been campaigning on this issue for more than 20 years. Now that we have a Parliament in Scotland that is dedicated to making Scotland a knowledge economy and is dedicated to our universities we must live up to their aspirations. We must recognise the plight of contract research staff and, most important, we must do something about it.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Many members have indicated their wish to take part in the debate and it will be impossible to call them all if members speak for a full four minutes. I ask members to keep their speeches as short as possible.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour 12:41 pm, 22nd November 2001

I declare an interest as a former president of the Association of Lecturers in Scottish Central Institutions, and as someone who worked in Glasgow Caledonian University for 20 years and spent five years as a member of the court of the University of Glasgow.

When talking about universities it is commonplace to talk about the binary system, referring to the split between old and new universities. It is equally important to talk about another two-tier system in higher education: the split between those people who enjoy a contractual protection in their employment as established lecturers and those whose employment rights are limited and whose security of employment is precarious—the contract researchers. It is striking how significant that group is.

There are 5,000 fixed-term contract research staff in Scotland, representing almost 5 per cent of fixed-term employees. Higher education has a spectacular share of that group. Many contract researchers have been in that position for a long time. The proportion of academic staff on fixed-term contracts has increased from 39 per cent to 42 per cent in the older universities. In the post-1992 universities, the number of academic staff on fixed-term contracts is now more than 50 per cent. The average length of service of contract researchers in some disciplines can stretch between six and 10 years. I have friends in the higher education system who have been on contract after contract, waiting for renewal until the last minute when they know that their employment can be secured. That is no way for them to construct a career and it is no way for us to conduct and manage research.

The Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee conducted an inquiry into the funding of teaching and research in higher education. One of our key conclusions was the importance of university research for the success of our economy. Within that we must ensure that the science strategy informs the ways in which we develop arrangements in the university sector. In that context we must bring the incentives for staff into line with achieving the objectives that we set in the strategy.

We must ensure that the universities are implementing a research agenda that fully involves staff and ensures that they are properly motivated to carry out their task. The only way to progress is by changing the terms of reference for contract research staff and giving them a much greater degree of security. I recognise that that will not be achieved easily and that we must take a partnership approach between the trade unions and the universities. It is a long-awaited task, which is important not only to the university sector but to Scotland as a whole. If we want to be a smart, successful Scotland, our smartest people, who are crucial to our success, need to be engaged in the process. They must be secure about their position in society and have a basis for developing their careers that will keep them here and contributing to Scotland.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative 12:45 pm, 22nd November 2001

I do not wish to appear to be a party pooper, but I cannot agree with everything that Alex Neil said. His classic comment was that this Parliament is dedicated to knowledge and universities. That may be the theory, but it is not true on the ground. That is one of the issues surrounding the debate that Alex Neil has managed to secure today, on which I congratulate him. It is part of a larger picture. I appreciate why he is focusing on one part of it.

It is true that fixed-term contracts offer people experience, but there is a need to develop a marketplace, so that those people can progress and develop and follow their interests into different institutions, because there is no guarantee that when someone gets to a particular speciality, does the job and wants to move somewhere else for personal development, there will be another job to go to. That has been highlighted by Des McNulty and Alex Neil. There is a need to consider the issue in the round. I would like to think that the Parliament will take that route.

I have worries about some of the comments that have been made, in that there is a requirement for flexibility for the institutions, but at the same time it should not be exploitative, because it is important that all good researchers start somewhere and develop. If they are encouraged and nurtured, which I support, that can only be good for the future of what I call the higher education industry in Scotland. It is a vital part of our economy.

We do well in the world marketplace in terms of how much research we do and the quality of that research, but there has to be better linkage between doing research for the sake of research and turning that research into something practical that can be applied, can benefit the economy and can create jobs. There should be linkage with the work that is done by contract research staff as part of their teams, which is developed through commercialisation programmes, to the benefit of the economy.

As the Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning will recall, I have raised with her the fact that there is a problem with the funding packages. That will influence how universities can establish a decent reward system and provide incentives to researchers to come, to stay and to feel that they have developed fully. At the moment, about £14 billion is spent on research and development in the UK. Of that, £4.5 billion is invested by the public sector. That is not well defined. I got the information from a website.

The problem is that, under the current rules in universities, it is almost impossible for commercial money to mix with university money and charity money all in the one package to develop the research programmes that we need contract researchers to do. It is essential that we allow mixed funding, be it from the independent, private or public sectors, to set up decent career structures for these people and to use them to the best advantage. We are no longer a screwdriver economy; we are in the business of knowledge management and the application of knowledge. That is where Scotland has to go. This Parliament has to recognise that in the round—specifically the contribution that the various grades of contract workers make to the foundation of the institutions that we seek to support today.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat 12:49 pm, 22nd November 2001

I cannot agree with David Davidson's remarks. This debate is taking place for the reasons that Alex Neil and Des McNulty rightly raised. The suggestion that market forces deliver a solution palpably does not describe what happens. That is why this debate is taking place and is, rightly, being attended and spoken in by many members across the chamber.

I share the concerns that have been expressed by Alex Neil and Des McNulty. I have received representations from individuals and from the AUT Scotland on this matter. Indeed, my knowledge has been greatly helped by the work that the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee has done on research funding and which we concluded not so many weeks ago. Des McNulty made a good point about the importance of the science strategy and how we can deliver that strategy using the best available people. Surely part of that is the essential focus that Alex Neil's debate brings to terms and conditions of employment.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

No, I only have two or three minutes and David Davidson has had his turn.

In a former life, I worked as a contract staff member for the then Scottish Development Agency. In my own position, the contract did not matter at all. However, I remember the concern of many members of the then SDA who did have a difficulty with being contract staff because they had worries about their future. Alex Neil's statistic about 40 per cent of research staff looking for a new position at any one time is a sobering statistic for public policy. As has been said, that statistic must be addressed.

I am conscious that many colleagues wish to speak. I will just make two points. First, the AUT is to be commended for making a range of proposals. Government is often asked to fix something but those who are doing the asking never seem to suggest how it can be fixed. In fairness, the AUT has suggested a number of different models for addressing this difficult issue. I hope that the minister will consider those options when winding up and enlighten the chamber as to how the issue is being pursued.

Secondly, I raise the issue of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council. I acknowledge that the council has introduced the contract research staff initiative, which has considered the management and redundancy issues surrounding contract staff. However, on the basis of information that I have received, is that enough? Could more not be done in that area, given that there are 5,000 fixed-term contract staff? Again, I hope that the minister will update Parliament on what is happening through SHEFC and what progress is being made on the career progression survey that I believe is under way, or nearly concluded.

Scottish universities are multi-million pound institutions. They receive many hundreds of millions of pounds from the public purse. I believe in the spirit of the remarks made by other members. We should value those essential members of academia in their building of a stronger and more economically viable Scotland.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I would be grateful if members would keep to about three minutes, because we are running short of time.

Photo of Marilyn Livingstone Marilyn Livingstone Labour 12:52 pm, 22nd November 2001

I thank Alex Neil and Richard Simpson for their motions, which bring a very important issue to the top of the Parliament's agenda. That must be welcomed. I will keep my remarks as brief as possible.

We are all agreed on the importance of the research base to the Scottish economy—there is no argument about that. The recent parliamentary debate on the SHEFC review highlighted the issues that we are concerned about: research assessment exercise and other research funding.

Following on from what Tavish Scott said, I definitely agree with David Bleiman from the AUT—who is in the gallery—that the success of Scotland's science strategy rests on our researchers. That came over to the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee as it carried out its review. We all value staff in the universities and the further and higher education colleges. As Des McNulty said, 5,000 contract research staff are one of the nation's most significant assets.

I think that pay is the main issue if we want to encourage young people at school level and attract back young and not-so-young people who have left Scotland to work abroad. During our inquiry, we heard about the brain drain and the lack of people coming into science. That is a big issue for the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee and the Parliament to examine. If we do not consider the whole issue and provide a solid career structure that gives people the same employment rights as those of full-time, permanent staff, we will have a difficult job in front of us.

The lifelong learning review has discussed the simplification of funding and all the strategic issues surrounding lifelong learning. It has been highlighted that funding—rather than consideration of the needs of Scotland's research base—is driving matters. Funding is the driver in many areas of lifelong learning. I would like ministers to consider that.

I will briefly talk about equal pay for women. The committee has seen statistics showing that fewer women are entering science and technology. We must tell women and everyone else that science offers a good career with a good structure that allows progression through the sector.

We must create an environment of security. I welcome the debate.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

Given the number of people who want to speak in the limited time, may I move a motion to extend the debate by 15 minutes?

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I am minded to accept a motion to add up to 15 minutes.

Motion moved,

That the meeting be extended by up to 15 minutes.— [Alex Neil.]

Motion agreed to.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I stress that the extension does not mean that I will fit in everyone who wants to speak. I ask members to keep their speeches tight, as many members wish to speak.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party 12:56 pm, 22nd November 2001

As is customary, I congratulate my colleague Alex Neil on the motion. I am conscious that other members wish to speak and I am grateful to the Presiding Officer for allowing a motion to extend the debate. The level of attendance at the debate is testimony to the interest in it. This has been one of the best-attended members' business debates for a while.

I go along with the points that were made eloquently by my colleague Alex Neil and by others. A crisis is pending in higher education. As he said, talent is haemorrhaging and there is a brain drain. Unless that is addressed, we will all pay the price in our communities and in the economy.

There is a danger of a collapse in morale in the AUT and among those who work in the sector. As others such as Des McNulty and Tavish Scott—members from different parties—have said, discussion of the matter has been postponed and those in the lecturer circuit say that that cannot continue.

McCrone dealt with the situation in primary and secondary education. That is causing an imbalance. We must recognise that salaries must be dealt with. We cannot continue to allow people to work on the basis that doing so is virtuous, that the institution in which they work is virtuous and that they are contributing to a greater cause. Those people must be rewarded.

We must recognise why such work is important. Alex Neil talked about the importance of research, which is fundamental. Contract research staff do policy work that is important not only to the Executive, but to members of the Parliament, whether on the Government benches or not. Contract research staff provide the knowledge and the basis on which we conduct much of our work.

Contract research staff also deal with a growing teaching load. The idea that research staff and teaching staff are differentiated is not often borne out. It must be factored into consideration that research staff do some teaching.

Tavish Scott mentioned that security of employment can be just as important as the rate of pay. People in any employment will say that their terms and conditions are often as important as the pay that they receive. An extremely highly paid individual who works in a stressful situation in an institution that does not meet health and safety regulations may not wish to remain with that institution. We must address that.

As Alex Neil and Tavish Scott said, we must deal with pay. The minister must take it on board that clearer directions must be given to SHEFC. Blunkett was clearer in his directions about pay than the Executive has been. That must be addressed.

We cannot simply place all the blame on the institutions. I agree with what David Davidson said about the underfunding of research. Research is significantly underfunded by the state and its funding is in deficit. I understand that the figures vary by institution between 39 per cent and 90 per cent. Until we increase funding for research, we will not have enough money for those at the coalface. I therefore support the motion.

Photo of Mike Watson Mike Watson Labour 12:59 pm, 22nd November 2001

I will not repeat much of what has been said. I welcome the motion, for which members have shown broad approval and I welcome Richard Simpson's motion, which is closely allied to it.

Some of the statistics that Alex Neil mentioned should be highlighted. I was struck particularly by the fact that many research staff spend a long time on fixed-term contracts. Some people have spent 20 years on a succession of fixed-term contracts. That cannot do anything for job security. It seems that universities have slipped into a fixed-term mentality. Other members have argued, and I agree with them, that there is no need for universities to have done so—certainly not to that extent.

In a redundancy situation, fixed-term contract staff are always the first to go. When they try to buy homes or get loans, they are always penalised by banks and other lenders, simply because they cannot give the long-term guarantees on income stream that are required by many lenders. That is extremely unfortunate. We have to recognise the role of research staff and value it more highly.

I am very taken with some of the information that has been provided for the debate by the AUT. The AUT proposal contains, among many suggestions, three models for debate. I will not go into them in detail, but will mention the flexibility model in which, from day one, career planning and staff development are geared to allowing individuals to develop their medium to long-term career employability.

The AUT also proposes a collaboration model in which partnerships could be formed between universities such as the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde and the universities of Dundee and St Andrews. That model would allow staff to be fully utilised in a flexible way between the universities. It would also give staff greater long-term stability. It is clear that there is no shortage of suggested ways of improving the situation. We need to find a way of doing that.

I urge the ministers to move quickly to facilitate discussions on the matter involving SHEFC, the universities and the unions that represent staff. That would enable an even greater contribution to be made to the development of Scotland's economy.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 1:02 pm, 22nd November 2001

I have to declare an interest. I am the rector of the University of Edinburgh. To an extent, that circumscribes my remarks.

I was one of the first members to support Alex Neil's motion. The situation had been a matter of acute concern for some time for me before I was elected to the Parliament. Now that I am more aware of it, it continues to be a matter of concern.

I will refer to a point that was made by David Davidson. Universities find it increasingly difficult to fund blue-sky research, due to the ever-decreasing amount of money that is provided from public funds. That must be a matter of concern to universities, researchers and to the Executive. All too often, before funds are given for research to be carried out, universities have to say what the result of the research will be.

I decided that my contribution to the debate would be brief. I will conclude by asking the Executive to meet, as soon as possible, SHEFC, the AUT and representatives of the universities. That will allow a problem that has been left on the shelf for far too long to be addressed.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour 1:03 pm, 22nd November 2001

I have two declarations to make. First, I have a son who is a short-term contract researcher with a university. Secondly, I have an honorary chair at Stirling University, where I have a research unit that employs short-term contract staff. I thank members for the support that they have given to the motion I lodged that is similar to the one lodged by Alex Neil.

I will not repeat what everybody else has said. There is agreement that the situation is unsatisfactory. I will instead throw out one or two questions. Was research worse back in the 1960s and 1970s when there were only 6,000 short-term contract workers? Is it better now that there are 39,000 contract workers in the United Kingdom? Has the process of casualisation, which was part of a philosophy that ranged across all our services, been to the benefit of research in our institutions? The answer is no.

What was introduced as something that might be appropriate for someone at the beginning of their career, as a first contract, has become a way of life for far too many people. In at least one institution, 12 per cent of the contract staff, who represent a substantial proportion of the total staff of that institution, have contracts that have revolved over a period of 10 years. That cannot be good for the knowledge economy that we are trying to build.

What began as a concept that would increase flexibility has become a way of life for far too many institutions. We need to change that. The damage is evident and the waste is clear. We cannot afford to treat so many bright, young people as a casual underclass with inadequate terms and conditions. The sort of partnership arrangements that Stirling University in my constituency is introducing are important, but the talk that has gone on for some time with the SHEFC initiative has got to stop. It is time for action to manage this group of people effectively for the benefit of Scotland.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 1:06 pm, 22nd November 2001

Many cogent points have been made in support of Alex Neil's excellent motion. I would like to broaden the debate out. The treatment of contract research staff is mirrored in almost every aspect of our lives. There are people on short-term contracts in health, local government, quangos and the voluntary sector. It was said in response to a question a few minutes ago that we are putting much more money into many more voluntary activities. That is good, but we are funding projects that build up a team for three years.

It is exactly the same with contract researchers. People are just beginning to get a good grip on the job and build up a lot of knowledge when the whole thing ends. They spend the second half of their contract seeking their next job. The whole thing is amazingly unproductive and inefficient. Short-termism is short-sighted, but it is endemic in almost every aspect of our public life. I do not know how we can shift it.

The people right at the top will have to use their power and persuasion and the funding mechanisms to ensure continuity and to ensure that people have security in what they are doing. It involves a bit of trust, which at the moment does not exist. Short-term contracting is based on mistrust. We have to trust people to do a good job, build up good teams of people and not sit about smoking but do even better work. In that way, we will get better value for money.

I appeal to the minister to get the message to the Executive that we somehow have to change that short-term attitude. That message is at the heart of this excellent motion. Short-termism is a cancer in our public life and we have to deal with it.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour 1:08 pm, 22nd November 2001

I congratulate Alex Neil and Richard Simpson on their motions. I welcome the sentiments that they contain about a complete overhaul of the management system and adopting a radical new approach, in partnership with employers and representatives of research staff.

What is badly needed is a career structure. A prospective contract researcher who wrote to me said:

"As someone who may have to face the reality of being employed as a researcher on a fixed term contract, I am concerned about the possibility of my career being far shorter than I'd like it to be. The Scottish Parliament, I think, has rather impressively addressed the issue of school teachers pay and conditions, but it has neglected problems such as these that face teachers & researchers in universities."

I speak as a former contract researcher, although that was in the 1980s. My main recollection was the flurry of activity near the end of my contract. Would it be extended? What other contract would I get? How far would I have to travel? In the end I decided that I did not want the uncertainty that came with contract research and left it to return to teaching. The figures that members have used show that mine was not an isolated case. One has to ask how much expertise is being lost as contract researchers move away from research.

Various groups have fought the cause. Alex Neil said that we have been fighting on this issue for 20 years, so it dates back to my time as a contract researcher. In education, the British Educational Research Association and its Scottish equivalent have been very active. More generally, the Association of University Teachers has been involved, as have other unions in the higher education sector. The Scottish Trades Union Congress's higher education forum has also discussed the matter with the minister and with SHEFC.

What is desperately needed is a career structure for contract researchers. That would address the problem of fixed-term contracts and the insecurity that they bring. The Scotsman said:

"Dickensian conditions lead to brain drain of university staff", and reported that the AUT has stated that the situation is

"damaging Scotland's reputation for research."

Is not it possible to look to other countries where experience has shown universities a better way of doing things? We could run pilots. I know that the AUT has various models that we could pursue. Let us get going with some of those models. We very much need change in this area, and soon.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 1:11 pm, 22nd November 2001

Let me read part of a letter that I received from a constituent. It is one of a number of letters that I have received and I am sure that other members have had similar correspondence. My constituent writes:

"Both myself and my husband are contract researchers. We both live in your region, and I also work at"— she names one of the city's universities. She continues:

"Insecure, short term contracts have made it difficult for us to work in the same city, make decisions about buying a flat and make decisions about starting a family. Having a baby too close to the end of a contract means missing out on paid maternity leave and losing the right to return to finish the contract.

Please continue to take an interest in the problems of insecurity and lack of career structure in Scottish Universities and research units, which leads to a lot of stress for researchers and is grossly inefficient for employers."

This is an age in which, in many respects, we know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. It is an age of the short term and the short-sighted, where the cost accountant is king. As Donald Gorrie said, the problem is not limited to university researchers. It began in the building industry, with the insidious device of so-called self-employed tradesmen, essentially to pass the risk of the ebbs and flows of contracts from the companies to the work force. It was not a good idea there, it is not a good idea for our young teachers, doctors or nurses, and it is certainly not a good idea for research staff on short-term contracts. A greater impetus to the brain drain and to our brightest stars opting out of research and teaching cannot possibly be imagined.

It is time to take a fundamentally different approach, in partnership with employers and staff. Perhaps we should use the funding mechanisms in a more strategic way to ensure that there is a framework that offers security of employment combined with flexibility of task for those who contribute to research and teach at our universities. Nothing—but nothing—is more vital to Scotland's future.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour 1:13 pm, 22nd November 2001

I draw members' attention to my entry in the register of members' interest, which lists my continued membership of the Association of University Teachers. I stress that that involves me giving them money, rather than them giving me money.

Like Sylvia Jackson, I have direct experience of working as a fixed-term contract researcher in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I worked in scientific research in Cambridge and London. I had three fixed-term contracts, two of three years' duration and one of two years' duration, but I only worked 27 months of the first one, two years of the second one and one year of the third one. That was not because I was particularly fickle but because, as soon as one gets halfway through a contract, one is looking to see where the next contract will come from. In each case, I changed specialisms and in one case, I changed institutions. That is not a good way to conduct research. The project is not completed if somebody leaves early and it is unlikely that anybody else will pick up the contract if there is only a year left. In my experience, most research institutions are quite resourceful in recycling the funding that is left over.

The alternative to looking around for a contract was to try to secure additional funding for the existing one. I tried that halfway through my second contract and spent a considerable amount of time and imagination putting together a research proposal. It came back from the funding organisation with an A band, accompanied by some kind remarks but, unfortunately, not accompanied by any funding, because it was not considered to be a high enough priority. There was not much joy in going down that route.

I am talking, of course, about something that happened a long time ago—that well-known scientist, Mrs Thatcher, was Prime Minister at the time—but I am sorry to say that I have not seen things improve much since then. If anything, things are getting worse, because there has been an increase in the use of short-term contracts in research institutions.

The AUT found that, among those on fixed-term contracts, there are a disproportionate number of women and ethnic minorities, which means that they are particularly disadvantaged. The fact that employment rights do not transfer between contracts even when the contracts are from the same funding body was mentioned. That can affect entitlements such as maternity pay.

In Scotland, we pride ourselves on the quality of our science. Much of that science is performed by people who are poorly paid in relation to their qualifications and who have no longer-term security of funding. That is not a sustainable situation.

I left science in 1988 before the birth of my first child. That was no great loss to British science, but the current method of funding research could bring losses: it means that we could lose valuable and good scientists who might make an important contribution to the Scottish economy. We need to stabilise the situation if we want the development and commercialisation of science to improve.

Photo of Brian Fitzpatrick Brian Fitzpatrick Labour 1:16 pm, 22nd November 2001

I am obliged for the extension of the debate, as are many other members who wish to speak.

The motions lodged by the convener of the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee and Richard Simpson raise important issues. It is good that common themes are emerging on vital issues for Scotland in members' debates. That raises important issues about how we do things in and around Parliament. Debates on issues such as research, proof of concept and the personalisation of research funding, which are being considered by the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Committee, reveal the innovation and scrutiny that the Parliament brings to issues that were sometimes placed on the back burner. I also pay tribute to the AUT in its campaigning role.

The minister will appreciate that all members are conscious that contract staff are often used to buffer the strain between demand and permanent faculty costs. I trust that he appreciates the consensus in the chamber that a competitive market for research funding is important, as David Davidson mentioned, but that it is also important to moderate the effects of competition on those that are sometimes less equipped to bear them. Ministers should reflect on that and report to Parliament on how best to retain, support and encourage research staff and on managing and funding research.

We will not retain some staff, but we benefit from the globalisation of research. A colleague of mine who was once at the University of Strathclyde, but who is currently in San Diego said, "You just cannae move the sun. I'm not coming back." We must reflect on that.

Alex Neil mentioned Jonathan Butler, who is an example of someone who has not been retained. He is the increasingly eminent son of Hilda and David Butler, who are not only in my constituency but are in my constituency Labour party circuit—those are two reasons to mention them.

Our institutions could not operate without contract research staff. One issue that we might consider in partnership with the AUT is how to get better data on who those groups are. We know that some derive all their income from various institutions. We do not want to lose the benefits of collaboration—the synergy work in and around Glasgow speaks volumes about the benefits of collaboration—but we want to know who makes up the growing group of contract researchers. A smaller group exists that supplements its income. As even the AUT would acknowledge, there are some who engage in research for its more diffuse rewards, if I can put it that way. We need better data.

I do not think that anyone is saying that all researchers should have permanent contracts—not all of them want permanent contracts—but the rationale should be found not only in administrative flexibility or in funding constraints.

Like Marilyn Livingstone, I am particularly interested in proceeding with work on gender divides in pay. A number of questions have been answered by the minister and I hope that we will have an opportunity to return to that subject in Richard Simpson's debate. In anticipation of that, I urge the minister to ensure that, if the Executive does not have figures on the pay divide, its gets them.

Photo of Alasdair Morrison Alasdair Morrison Labour 1:19 pm, 22nd November 2001

I welcome Alex Neil's interest in contract researchers and appreciate that more members have remained to participate in this important debate than usual. In the few minutes that are available to me, I will try to respond to some of the points that have been raised.

I am aware that Alex Neil has spoken recently to my colleague Wendy Alexander. I repeat the assurance already given to him that the Executive recognises the valuable contribution of contract research staff to the development of Scotland's research base. We acknowledge absolutely the importance of their work in underpinning the knowledge economy and pushing forward the science strategy. A number of members mentioned that, and I agree with the points they raised.

Equally, we are aware of the problems that staff on short-term contracts face, many of which have been highlighted in this debate. We are keen to see higher education institutions continue to work to address those problems.

Wendy Alexander made clear the priority that we attach to good human resource management in higher education in her guidance letter to SHEFC last November. In that letter she stated:

"People are our key resource in our colleges and universities".

That message was reinforced through the recent science strategy.

Better career structure and development would give contract researchers more access to mechanisms for career progression and regular appraisal. That would tackle the complaint that contract research staff often feel excluded from mainstream academic life. It would see all institutions holding reliable and comprehensive data on their contract research staff and using that data to plan and manage the group more effectively.

I come to a specific suggestion. I am aware that the AUT has called for the Executive to consider a role for Scottish Enterprise in placements for academics in industry to boost career prospects. As the science strategy is developed and the commercialisation of research moves up a gear, we may find that there are possibilities for enhancing the careers of academic staff through more structured involvement in the private sector. As members of the Parliament are well aware, the nature of responsibilities in the sector means that the Executive does not have direct control in employment matters, but as a principal source of funding for the sector, the Executive can give clear leadership and guidance wherever and however possible. We have of course increased the funding available to the sector through SHEFC by 8 per cent in cash terms in the current year.

SHEFC has been working to promote good practice in the employment and management of contract researchers through its contract research staff initiative. The council recently published a report entitled "Realising their Potential", which sets out the achievements of that initiative and the ways in which it could be developed in the future.

Today's debate is certainly timely. SHEFC is holding a conference in two weeks' time at which institutions will report on the outcome of projects that they have undertaken as part of the initiative. That will be an important conference and MSPs may participate in it and will certainly get feedback from it. In addition, SHEFC has been consulting on proposals for a new condition of grant. If accepted, the proposal would mean that teaching and research funding would be linked to progress on major policy goals from 2002-03.

If we are to improve the situation for contract research staff, three main avenues are open to us. First, ministers can continue to promote the importance of nurturing and developing the talented people in our universities. That message is being conveyed in various ways, including the guidance letter to SHEFC and policy documents such as the science strategy. Debates such as this can also be used to press the point.

Secondly, we can ask SHEFC to develop mechanisms for encouraging good practice. That will enable the council to identify how it can support institutions so that we can be confident that improvements will be made. We are also willing to ask SHEFC to collect management information on contract research staff numbers on an annual basis. That information would provide an up-to-date picture on the proportion of staff employed on short-term contracts and the associated patterns and trends. We hope that that will be useful management information for institutions.

Thirdly, we will be interested to hear about contract staff as we proceed with the current review of higher education. The terms of reference for the review specifically recognise the valuable contribution to be made by well-managed and well-motivated staff.

We must recognise that the existence of some contract research staff in higher education is a feature of the system that we must become accustomed to. It is a product of the success of the sector in attracting project-based research funding from a range of bodies beyond Government, including major charities and industry. It is worth making the point that, over the past 10 years, the income received by SHEFC-funded institutions from research grants and contracts from bodies other than SHEFC has doubled.

Within that, the income from charities has increased threefold. That rapid growth in project-led funding creates a new and challenging management environment for higher education institutions, which seriously tests the strength of their approach to human resources. It demands imaginative solutions.

In conclusion, it is critical that we support and encourage the sector to rise to that challenge and ensure that this talented pool of individuals is managed and developed to the highest possible standards, in the long-term interest of the Scottish research base.

Meeting suspended until 14:30.

On resuming—