Contract Research Staff

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:45 pm on 22nd November 2001.

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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.