Contract Research Staff

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 1:13 pm on 22nd November 2001.

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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.