Contract Research Staff

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 1:19 pm on 22nd November 2001.

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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.