Post-doctoral Scientific Careers

– in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 10th January 2006.

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Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities 1:30 pm, 10th January 2006

I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss a matter of importance to the present and future success of the United Kingdom science base. I note that the Hansard record is not full of previous debates on the topic. I am pleased that you are in the Chair, Mr. Gale, as I know that you take an active interest in all matters relating to the future of the UK science base. I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Barry Gardiner. The Minister for Science and Innovation, Lord Sainsbury, sits in the House of Lords, so it is the role of the hon. Gentleman, who is also a Department of Trade and Industry Minister, to substitute for him in this place, which he does ably. It seems as though it was only the other day that we were discussing scientific publications and open access in another Adjournment debate.

The people we are discussing—post-doctoral researchers or post-doctoral students—are scientists who have got a good result in their degree, which has enabled them to get funding for and then to complete a doctorate, and the majority of whom have gone on to work in what is called contract research. There are tens of thousands of them and they are some of the brightest people our higher education system has produced. They have the potential to help to make great discoveries through science, pure research and applied; through the application of experimental techniques and the basic knowledge taught to them at university during their degree courses and doctorates; through interactions with other people in their laboratories and work areas as well as internationally through collaborations and conferences; and through their reading. It is my contention that they feel undervalued and that we are not making the best use of them, because many of them are leaving.

That is not a new concern. In fairness, it must be said that the Government have recognised the problem, as have the higher education funding councils, research funders, and the Wellcome Trust and other charities that are members of the Association of Medical Research Charities. The questions now are: has enough been done, are the initiatives working, and do the Government have mechanisms in place to determine whether the initiatives are working? I shall set out what post-doctoral researchers hold the problems to be, examine some of the initiatives that have been put in place, question how well we are measuring the outcomes, and then address what next steps the Government can take—or help to catalyse, because responsibility in this area does not lie with Government alone, although the Government have an important role, as they are the major source of public funding for schemes and have a role in quality assurance in science and in personnel and human resource policies.

I am grateful to the individual post-doctoral researchers who have told me their views. In my roles as Liberal Democrat science spokesman and as a member of the Science and Technology Committee, I visit institutions and I take the opportunity to ask to meet with post-doctoral researchers on a group basis, without senior management or heads of department being present. Heads of department usually provide excellent hospitality on such visits and they tell us about their strategies and the progress that is being made, but, speaking as one who is particularly interested in the careers of scientists, I believe that there is no substitute for asking them individually and in groups, and in the absence of their bosses, what they really think of their lot. One of the questions I wish to discuss is to what extent the high-level bodies that look at research careers are directly in touch with the views of the people who are affected.

Post-doctoral researchers, whether they have jobs in rigorously selective research departments of high reputation or in other research departments also doing excellent work, report their concerns to me. The concerns are not specific to the departments that may be seen to be struggling in terms of the research assessment exercise, or to those who feel that they are not the brightest and the best of a very bright and effective group of people. We are talking about some of the top people who are still not happy, who are leaving and who are encouraging people not to stay in this role.

I am grateful to Cancer Research UK in particular, to Universities UK and to the British Heart Foundation for their briefings. I pay tribute to the work of people in the Wellcome Trust such as its director, Mark Walport, who has looked into this issue, and those who have served in the Research Careers Initiative, particularly Professor Sir Gareth Roberts, whom I was pleased to meet just last week at the Association for Science Education conference in Reading. He has gone beyond the call of duty in what he has sought to do. He has not only taken the thorny crown of dealing with the research assessment exercise which has a bearing on this subject, but, with his report "SET for Success", he looked at the supply of scientists to the UK science base and then chaired the Research Careers Initiative and the Research Careers Committee of the Research Funders' Forum, which flowed out of it. I pay tribute to his work and I was pleased to have the opportunity, albeit brief, to talk to him in advance of this debate.

Cancer Research UK describes the position well. It says that post-doctoral researchers are a valuable asset to UK research but that the lack of job security and clear career structure is a disincentive for scientists to stay in research. Let me explain what the real issue is. We are talking about people who have completed their undergraduate training, accumulating debt on the way. The Minister knows that I think that that is a flawed policy because it deters people who could benefit from it from going into higher education. In particular it deters those who graduate with debt, particularly those from debt-averse backgrounds, from going into less well-paid public sector jobs, which are highly valuable to this country's economy and certainly as valuable as better paid jobs in the City and in industry. Those people emerge from university with debts and they then do doctorates. I acknowledge that the stipend for doctorates has been increased, which I welcome, but it is also not sufficient to enable them even to think about living independently. They then go on to get three-year contracts which do not pay well compared with the earnings of people who are likely to be as bright as them, but who took their degrees in other subjects and are now working in the private sector. The people we are discussing are often earning between £20,000 and £30,000 three, four or five years after getting their doctorates.

We are talking about people in their late twenties and early thirties who may still be in debt from their student days and who have no prospect of being able to buy a house on their own or even with their partners. They are stuck with the prospect, particularly in high living cost areas such as my constituency, Cambridge and London, of sharing a house, just as they did in their student days. When people ask them whether they would encourage others to go into their career, they often reply, "What career? There is no career. There is a job. There is a pretty poor salary. It has been improved recently and there are some career development opportunities. There may be sources of more advice but fundamentally things have not changed."

Post-doctoral researchers play a crucial role in UK academic research and losing people of their valuable experience is a real problem. Let us consider what happens if someone with great experience of how a lab works and the experimental techniques in the broad area in which the work is being undertaken leaves because his funding runs out. The university cannot retain him because it has not been able to attract the grant that it requires to keep on an experienced person, or it is more likely to receive funding if within the grant application it substitutes an experienced post-doctoral salary for a more junior post-doctoral salary even though the junior person does not share the experience of the person who has done the good work that has enabled the university to renew the grant or explore new areas. In those circumstances, who will be left in the lab to supervise the students? As the Minister knows, the principal investigator is often not around to do the hands-on supervision and training of students. Often, the result will be either demoralised doctoral students or poorly less incisively done science. The role of the laboratory expert with experience must be recognised, cherished and nurtured. I fear that that is not happening at the moment.

Despite the initiatives that the Minister will no doubt describe, the position is not getting better. Although I welcome the initiatives, in recent years the proportion of research funding that universities receive in the form of fixed-term grants has gradually increased. The type of funding that promotes short termism has increased, as a result of which the proportion of researchers on short-term contracts has also increased markedly. Currently, more than half of post-doctoral researchers in United Kingdom universities are funded through short-term contracts, and that proportion is increasing. We are now left with a growing number of people who have a lack of job security as a result of working on multiple short-term contracts, which is a strong disincentive for scientists to remain in academia. Researchers can end up spending many years on short-term contracts, each lasting for only two to three years, but as their experience grows they become more expensive to employ, and ultimately they may be priced out of the market in favour of young, less experienced scientists on a lower pay scale.

It is a matter of chiefs and indians. I am not arguing that every post-doctoral researcher should be given a job for life and tenure. No one would argue that, but there must be ways to enable the best of the post-doctoral researchers who are not in a position to take on lectureships or principal investigator roles to convert to open-ended contracts. Some people are simply not interested in doing that and are interested only in doing the work that they love. They recognise that that will limit their lifetime earnings, but there must be a way to allow them to convert to open-ended contracts.

Another problem engendered by the present culture is that researchers are constantly moving every two to three years. Research projects have little continuity and suffer as a consequence, making it less likely that research goals can be reached. I accept that we cannot be too purist about such matters because it is necessary for researchers to be mobile at an early stage in their career if that suits the area that they are exploring. They must be able to look at different groups, try different techniques and have the opportunity to move around. I am not saying that there are no benefits in mobility, but it is not the case that those benefits cannot be achieved—indeed, I believe that they can be best achieved—from the basis of an open-ended contract that people can move from because they have the confidence to put everything into their scientific career without worrying about whether they ought to consider training in something else in order to have some form of career that will give them the job security that they need as they enter their 30s.

There is also concern that the training received by post-doctoral researchers on short-term contracts does not meet all their development needs. It often relates specifically to their research fields and does not provide them with transferable skills. I am pleased that there are initiatives to provide a certain number of sessions and funding to go with that to tackle the problem, but has the evaluation been done?

I am not the first person to raise the issue. It has been raised in the main outside general parliamentary debate. It has certainly been investigated in Science and Technology Committee reports—there have been Lords and Commons reports into such issues. Sir Gareth Roberts' report "SET for Success: The supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills" clearly stated several points. It said that research councils and other research sponsors should significantly increase starting salaries for post-doctoral researchers. Some of that has now been done through the initiative in the higher education sector to tackle issues of equal pay for work of equal value, which has generally tended to uplift salaries, but no one could argue that that solved the problem—the difference between people of the same age in different jobs who are and are not clinically qualified is enormous—or that that current post-doctoral research salaries are satisfactory. Sir Gareth also pointed out that unattractive career structures, including short-term contracts and low levels of responsibility, are responsible for deterring postgraduates from pursuing a career in science.

The final report of the Research Careers Initiative, which stemmed from the work of Sir Gareth Roberts and his colleagues, recommended that various issues be taken forward by the Research Funders' Forum and dealt with in the promulgation of a new protocol to renew the old protocol on setting higher standards for post-doctoral research. I should like to ask the Minister what point that work has reached, because the timetable set in the report appears to have slipped drastically. No help is found in the minutes of the careers research sub-committee of the Research Funders' Forum, because the only minutes available on the website are of what appears to be the first meeting, held on 1 October 2004. That talks about reporting to the Research Funders' Forum in April 2005, and states that it is intended that work on the replacement for the concordat will be completed by July 2005 and presented to the Research Funders' Forum in autumn 2005. I should like the Minister to tell me what has happened.

Finally, I should like to touch on the European working time directive on short-term working. The EU fixed-term contract directive is designed to protect workers by preventing employers from using successive contracts as a means to avoid making employment permanent. To comply, Governments and the member states must introduce measures that specify

"(a) objective reasons for justifying the renewal of such contracts and relationships;

(b) the maximum total duration of successive fixed-time contracts or relationships;— and—

(c) the number of renewals of such contracts or relationships."

Crucially, the directive requires that fixed-term workers

"shall not be treated in a less favourable manner . . . because they have a fixed-term contract or relation unless different treatment is justified on objective grounds."

It is unclear what the impact of that has been in this country. I shall be grateful if the Minister clarifies what work is being done to identify whether—in contrast to what we hear from Cancer Research UK—there has been a move towards universities giving people open-ended contracts funded by the prospect and prediction of grant income, which is one of the key ways forward. Post-doctoral researchers tell me that that directive means only that they get a few hundred pounds in redundancy money; it does not change the situation on the ground.

Finally—recognising that we do not have time for a full debate about all the issues—I remind the Minister that one of the key points about the treatment of this group of people is the differential and disproportionate affect that it has on women and ethnic minorities in science. That message runs throughout the reports—it is not directly dealt with, but is certainly referred to in almost every report—and the Government clearly recognise it. If the Government's commitment to promoting science as a career for women and promoting the careers of women in science is to mean anything, they must tackle the problems of short-term contract working, a demoralised work force, and the loss of expertise and the waste of talent and investment that results from people leaving science because of unsatisfactory career prospects for those who are good at science and who would otherwise want to continue. I look forward to the Minister's response.


This is an interesting speech from the Member of Parliament "for the University of Oxford". My thanks to Dr Harris.

Submitted by Kaihsu Tai

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Delivery and Efficiency) 1:48 pm, 10th January 2006

Mr. O'Hara, anyone reading Hansard may be confused about why I address you in the Chair, but the quick change that was done in the hot seat while Dr. Harris was speaking has brought you to it and I am glad to see you there supervising the remainder of this afternoon's debate.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the subject of post-doctoral scientific careers and for the way in which he based his contribution on the experience of conducting his own research among the researchers. He spoke with great candour and I shall try to respond in the same vein.

The Government attach importance to this subject, which is particularly significant if we are to realise the UK-wide and European-wide targets that depend so much on having enough well trained scientists. If the UK is to have a supply of highly motivated and well trained post-doctoral scientists, it is essential that their career options are attractive. The Government's determination to achieve that has been evident in the last two spending review commitments. For example, one key theme of the 2004 spending review allocations was the importance of strengthening the health of the engineering and physical science disciplines. The £10 billion allocation of funding for the period between 2005 and 2008 aims to lay the foundations by improving the health of key disciplines.

The hon. Gentleman introduced one perhaps contentious note when he spoke about student fees and the legacy of debt that they leave. I trust that he acknowledges that whereas under the old regime post-doctoral students would face a requirement to pay back 9p in every pound that they earned over £10,000, under the new regime the threshold is raised to £15,000. Year on year, while they are doing their post-doctoral studies, the chances are that they will be at least £450 better off and less likely to have to repay the debt in the first place. I shall not dwell on that point, because the hon. Gentleman made a great many important comments to which I want to respond.

The Government have already taken steps to improve the attractiveness of careers in science and to maintain the future supply of skilled people by enthusing schoolchildren about science and careers in that field. In recent years we have made a number of changes that have improved the attractiveness of research careers generally and the conditions for those engaged in them. Those changes stem from the review, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, carried out by Sir Gareth Roberts on the supply of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills. The "SET for Success" review brought to wide attention the key issues that affect post-doctoral and other research staff in universities and their impact on the recruitment and retention of those individuals. Issues included a lack of a clear career structure, uncertain career prospects, unsatisfactory training and increasingly uncompetitive salaries.

Although universities and research organisations are the employers of post-doctoral scientists, the Government, through the research councils, have introduced a series of measures designed to encourage employers to improve the attractiveness of research careers and to support the training and development offered by universities and research organisations. The Government have provided £185 million of new money up until 2007–08 to introduce the so-called Roberts measures. They are aimed at not only post-doctoral researchers, but at PhD students, who have benefited enormously from them. Specifically, research council PhD students, who comprise about one third of the total, receive a stipend of at least £12,000, tax-free. That represents a tangible increase in their remuneration, which has almost doubled since 1998, and it improves the attractiveness of further study to those who have the capacity to go on with it. That is at least one way in which the Government have attempted to address the problem, on which the hon. Gentleman commented, of people feeling under-valued.

Research council PhD students also receive two weeks of training in transferable skills every year—another issue mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. That has already had an impact on attitudes to such training in UK universities, and universities are actively participating in the sharing of good practice. Measures are also being developed in consultation with the sector to evaluate the impact of that additional training on the employability of PhD graduates.

For post-doctoral researchers, funding has increased research council salaries in areas that experience recruitment and retention difficulties. Research council researchers are also now provided with career development training through that funding. In addition, a new academic fellowship scheme has been developed to provide 1,000 new fellowships over five years. The schemes aim to provide more stable and attractive routes into academic careers, for which the hon. Gentleman was calling.

As part of the process of assessing the effectiveness of these measures, the research councils have commissioned a study to monitor the impact of increased funding for post-doctoral salaries on the higher education employment culture. They are particularly interested in the impact that that aspect of the funding has had on the employment practices of universities and research organisations.

With regard to the other measures aimed at post-doctoral researchers, the academic fellowships scheme has had a positive impact, and at least two universities have effectively cloned the scheme for the recruitment of their academic staff. The scheme has a clear structure that aims towards an academic career and includes outreach work into schools and teaching duties. That clear structure tackles the concern that the post-doctoral researcher has no identifiable career path. The scheme was launched in March 2004, and 398 fellows are now in place. If their performance is satisfactory, those fellows will be given a permanent academic post at the end of the five-year fellowship.

The funding for skills training for post-doctoral researchers has enabled universities to expand considerably their training and support for post-doctoral researchers and to provide them with opportunities to develop broader professional skills. That step change in the training and support provided to post-doctoral researchers in universities allows them to explore the full range of their responsibilities as scientists, including commercial awareness and sensitivity to public concerns about the advancement of science. The training focuses on a researcher functioning in a variety of research environments and therefore equips them with broad experiences that they can apply to a range of research problems. In addition to that training, the research councils operate targeted schemes that provide researchers with broader training, including public engagement training, and grants for public engagement activities.

Further changes in recent years have had positive impacts on post-doctoral researchers in the university sector. One such change was the introduction of the fixed-term employee regulations in 2002, which the hon. Gentleman outlined. Under the regulations, from July 2006, when a researchers contract is renewed, those with more than four years' fixed-term employment will have to be considered for permanent employment. The use of short-term contracts is a fundamental issue that affects the recruitment and retention of researchers in the university research sector. Placing the risks and uncertainties created by short-term funding on to the researchers makes it difficult for them to plan their lives and careers. It is not uncommon for researchers to work without pay while they are waiting for the outcome of grant applications, yet such dedication to their profession is often taken for granted by their employees. The fixed-term regulations should deal with many of these issues by encouraging universities to move away from over-reliance on the use of fixed-term contracts. They will need to be far more proactive in the management and development of their post-doctoral researchers.

Some employers have already taken steps to reduce the use of fixed-term contracts. Research council institutes, for example, have already introduced guidelines to ensure that fixed-term contracts are used only in very limited circumstances—for example, when specialist skills are required in the short term. The reliance on fixed-term contracts in the higher education sector is also being challenged through other initiatives. For example, the introduction of the full economic costing of university research now means that universities can include so-called bridging funds as an indirect cost in grant applications to research councils. That allows them to continue the employment of a researcher while grant applications are pending, so although the fixed-term regulations require universities to provide proper redundancy procedures, full economic costing of research allows universities to build contingency funds to manage the redundancy of their permanent researchers should it become necessary.

The fixed-term regulations are also likely to have an impact on the mobility of researchers. At present, while such mobility is very beneficial generally to the development of research, it can also be viewed as being enforced in some instances. Those who are less mobile, perhaps because of family commitments, could be disadvantaged, as the hon. Gentleman described very succinctly. The regulations should, however, help in that researchers will be able to take control of their careers. They will be able to seek out further career moves as and when it suits them, rather than having relocations forced on them because a contract ends.

Salaries are also seen to affect the attractiveness of careers in research. Although most researchers often cite their interest in their subject area as the prime reason for undertaking such careers, the role of pay cannot be overlooked.

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment lapsed, without Question put.