Contract Research Staff

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:34 pm on 22nd November 2001.

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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.