§ 11.54 a.m.
§ Lord Dainton rose to move, That this House take note of the Report of the Science and Technology Committee on Academic Research Careers for Graduate Scientists (Fourth Report, 1994–95, HL Paper 60).985
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, first, I apologise to the House, and especially to the other members of the sub-committee of the Science and Technology Select Committee, for the long gap between the printing of our report as House of Lords Paper 60 as long ago as 19th July of last year and today's debate. The fault is entirely mine. I also couple that apology with an expression of my deep gratitude to my colleagues on the sub-committee, not only for their wisdom and judgment, but especially for their kindly tolerance of my somewhat idiosyncratic chairmanship, which Mr. Batt, the proficient secretary to the committee, also patiently endured.
§ There is a large number of speakers and in these circumstances I believe that my role should be limited to a brief account of why and how we set about the inquiry and of some of the broad conclusions we reached, so that other speakers may have adequate time to express their views. I shall give some definitions, then a description of the major change in the structure of the graduate staffing of British universities, followed by a discussion of the causes of this major change and what needs to be done to remedy any adverse consequences.
§ Graduate staff in British universities are broadly divisible into two categories, which I have called "established" and "contract". The former are paid by the universities to do teaching and research, those twin core functions of traditional universities. The money for this comes from the basic incomes of universities, from fees and from government grant, the latter allocated to each university by the relevant higher education funding council and to be used for meeting recurrent expenditure. Endowment income constitutes only a small part of the total income and for our purposes it can be disregarded.
§ Twenty years ago such staff holding academic ranks with which we are all familiar, like professor, reader, senior lecturer and lecturer, would have been regarded as permanent or tenured. They would also have had every expectation of permanence of tenure. In recent years that expectation has been diminished by schemes such as premature voluntary retirement so that it is better—and this is the terminology that I shall pursue—to call them "established".
§ In contrast are the contract researchers, the majority of whom hold higher degrees. They are hired to carry out research for limited periods on short-term contracts, often, but not always, under the general direction of an established member of staff and perhaps as part of a team. The cost of the contract researchers' salaries is met from money received by their university in the form usually of a research grant or contract awarded by perhaps a research council, a government department, a British or non-British industrial enterprise, a charity—these are predominantly medical—European Union or other overseas sources and very occasionally, but only very occasionally, from the university's own income from the relevant funding council.
§ The infrastructure costs, which are, and can often be, very considerable in the case of scientific, engineering and technological research, may sometimes come from 986 the same sources, but very often are in large measure met from the research element of the block grant allocated to the university by the funding council. The size of that element which the funding council is prepared to give to a particular university depends primarily on the research quality rating which that university has earned as a result of a periodic research assessment exercise. These ratings are related to the volume and perceived quality; the quality obviously has a more subjective and judgmental component than the quantity. The ratings are related to those two things which are concerned with the work submitted by the universities for the purpose of assessment.
§ There are completely reliable statistics for the various categories of university staff and students which now go back over many decades for those universities, numbering almost 50, which were on the old University Grants Committee grant list; that is to say, those universities which existed and had Royal charters before 1992. I shall confine my comments to those in order to have the consistency that one needs to show trends.
§ There have been some remarkable changes over roughly the past two decades. They are fully documented in Chapter 3 and in the appendices of the report. They affect every area of science, engineering, technology, medicine, veterinary work, agriculture etc. As I know from my postbag, because I have been astonished by letters from professional institutions as well as private individuals, this is a matter of considerable concern. Only today the Royal Society of Chemistry wrote about its concern in relation to chemists. Those data show broadly that between the academic years 1977–78 and 1993–94—that is a span of 16 years, during which time there was a greater than 70 per cent. increase in student load—the number of established staff in all subjects rose by a mere 4 per cent. Moreover, there was very little movement in and out of the university service. In crude and rather unattractive terms, those staff are said in the trade to have merely "aged on the job". That can be seen clearly in the age profiles in the report where the graph shifts up by 10 years for every 10 years that elapse. Those staff were promoted in due course, a process which again is rather unattractively called "grade drift". I am not particularly attracted to such terms, but we have to use them.
§ In very stark contrast to that is the number of contract researchers which, in the same period, grew by a factor of three from some 7,000 to 22,000. By the academic year 1993–94, for every three established staff there were two contract staff, as compared with the beginning of that period when there was only one contract staff member for every five established staff. Moreover—this is significant—there is no age profile change and no grade shift among the contract workers. They came in and out of the service, staying for different periods and were not permanently part of the university system.
§ It is clear that contract researchers have become an indispensable element in ensuring that the volume of research for each member of the established staff is maintained or even increased despite the greater student load to which I have referred. It is equally clear—and in my view and that of the Committee it is quite 987 unacceptable—that, although the contract staff are so necessary, they constitute an underclass of graduate employees in the universities. Women contract staff are a depressed group even within that underclass. In broad terms, young contract researchers are disadvantaged relative to established staff of comparable age and attainments in respect of salary, career prospects, pension rights accumulations, status and privileges, and they lack any significant voice in policy and decision-making within their employing universities.
§ Contract researchers constantly worry where and when they will get their next research meal ticket. As they move—perhaps "shuffle" would be a better verb—from contract to contract, their life is not so much that of Matthew Arnold's scholar-gipsy, but what the US Congressman from California, George Brown, picturesquely described to us as that of an "enforced gipsy-scholar". As I have said, women are even more disadvantaged. Perhaps other speakers will enlarge on that.
§ This is clearly not the best way to get the most from the creative talents of young people, not least because the need to secure "brownie points" in research assessment exercises is a powerful disincentive to the most speculative, long-range and imaginative work to which young minds in their most creative period ought to be giving attention. Moreover, to the discerning talented young who are needed if science, engineering and technology are to flourish in this country, that underclass can hardly be expected to sing the siren songs which will beguile such able younger persons into science.
§ What I have described is, indeed, a deplorable situation which it is in everybody's interests to see improved. However, before answering the obvious questions of how and by whom it can be improved, we need to know the causes of that phenomenon, which is new in this country, and of which there are many. I shall mention only a few of the principal causes. They add up to a few simple facts. In real terms, the universities' average unit of resource has declined by a factor of three since 1972–73. I shall not weary your Lordships with the details because it is all recorded in col. 310 of Hansard of 6th March where I revealed the basis of the calculation.
§ Consequently, universities are seeking all the means they can to augment their income and to balance their books. The largest single pot of gold which is held by the funding councils is allocated to individual universities in accordance with a formula which takes account, among other things, of their research assessment rating. To secure a larger slice of that money, the universities must demonstrate a higher level of highly rated research and therefore must have attracted contract money from other sources of the kind I have already mentioned.
§ Furthermore, some of those other sources, both at home and overseas, such as government departments, industry and the European Union, seem increasingly willing to buy scientific, engineering and technological research from British universities. The industrial trend in the United Kingdom is especially noteworthy. To use 988 the current fashionable jargon, there is a tendency in some science-based British industrial firms to "outsource", as they say, some of their researchers and instead of doing research in-house to buy in that research from universities and, to use another unattractive jargon verb, to "downsize" their own research staff, by which they mean to reduce their numbers.
§ That carries with it a reluctance to recruit as many new science, engineering and technological Ph.Ds. That was dramatically illustrated in the statistics about the UK employment trends of Ph.Ds which I received only two days ago from a specialist adviser, Dr. Paul Whittingham, a fellow chemist who provided me with data showing that whereas during the 1980s roughly equal numbers of new Ph.Ds went into industrial or university employment, towards the end of that decade the university employment of Ph.Ds showed a marked upturn while for industry it showed a marked downturn. In the last year for which statistics are available, well over twice as many new Ph.Ds took university rather than industrial employment. That change is a bad portent for the future because it exacerbates rather than ameliorates the problem. Where, one may ask, will those Ph.Ds now recruited into universities go later if industry continues with this downsizing?
§ There are doubtless many laissez-faire market economists who would say that that situation is a simple, classic example of surplus labour, that that labour is therefore vulnerable to exploitation, and that the situation will correct itself over time. By that, they mean that fewer able people will aim to be science, engineering or technology graduates. That is not a prospect that I can accept with complacency; nor do I think that it is desirable or good for the country when our future depends not only on producing very able, highly qualified and well motivated science, engineering and technology graduates and using them well, but also on developing an awareness in all sections of our national life of the power and limits of science. We need able young people in our universities who, as at present, aim and should be enabled to become high quality practitioners in their various scientific disciplines. They are the specialists to be and should be educated in their science as thoroughly as possible. But we also need many more with a good but not exhaustive knowledge of an aspect of science who can become generalists later in life. Their education while studying science must aim to be an enlargement of the general powers of their minds through scientific education. That education should be designed to enable them to acquire those added skills which teachers of the humanities always claim to impart to their students.
§ Such science-based generalists are much sought after, as I know from personal experience. It is well accepted in the university world. About 20 years ago when I came to the end of my tenure as chairman of the University Grants Committee it appeared to me that there ought to be opportunities for engineers in particular to make their mark in the world at large, in a way that they were not doing in industrial enterprises, and that able engineers should have an extra year to give them four-year courses 989 in which they could deal with questions of industrial relations, technological economics, the nature of the firm and so forth. Imperial College still holds Dainton courses, and I visit them occasionally. Wherever they have been introduced those graduates have proved by their subsequent careers the truth of the assertion that such people are very much valued. The world will beat a path to their door and they will make a great contribution to the economy. It is a challenge to our universities to provide courses of this kind. There is no disguising the difficulty of the attitudinal changes required of established staff who still see it as their duty simply to produce more clones of themselves.
§ Meanwhile, there are no signs that the number of contract researchers will decrease. There are some signs, one of which I have given, that it will increase in the immediate future. It is imperative that contract researchers be better managed and treated in terms of status, financial rewards, access to amenities and participation in policy making, and that they receive regular assessment of their capabilities, achievements, prospects and, if necessary, guidance to change career patterns. Some higher education institutions are making pioneering moves in that direction. One notable example is University College, London. I welcome today the concordat which was signed on the day that the report hit the streets between the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals on the one hand and the research councils and the Royal Society on the other as providers of many of these contracts.
§ It remains to be seen how many and how soon individual universities will accept and then implement the provisions of the concordat. That is important because the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals cannot commit its member institutions. All universities must be encouraged to do so. In particular, I applaud the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, which has already reacted to our report by setting aside funds to help career guidance for contract researchers in Scottish universities. This can do nothing but good for a small expenditure. But, even if fully implemented, the concordat will affect only about 7,000 contract researchers. Clearly, out of the total of 22,000 they represent only one-third. That is a fraction which I believe is likely to decrease. The other two-thirds of the contract researchers must also have their terms and conditions of service improved. If this costs a little more money, so be it. I do not doubt that the improvement in the lot of contract researchers will result in even greater commitment to their research and produce a gain in quantity and quality of output disproportionately larger than any extra costs.
§ There is much more to be said. Much of it is to be found in the report itself. I hope that subsequent speakers will say it. But if I am not to obstruct them or attract the charge of not just exhausting the patience of noble Lords but encroaching on eternity, I believe that I must now give way.
§ 12.16 p.m.
§ The Earl of Selborne
My Lords, once more the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, 990 for the clear way in which he has introduced the report. He got only one matter totally wrong. There was nothing idiosyncratic about the way in which he chaired the sub-committee. The noble Lord has chaired sub-committees on a number of occasions in the past, always to enormous effect and to the great assistance of this House. This report clearly identifies a minor scandal which perhaps requires the probing of a Select Committee to focus attention upon it and to get the long-term implications understood by the wider public.
It is true that in 1993 the White Paper, Realising Our Potential, drew attention to this problem. It recorded the failure of universities, colleges and funding councils adequately to provide career management and training. There was then hope that something would happen in quick time. Nothing happened until the day of the publication of the report when the draft concordat saw the light of day. That took place nearly three years later and was a disappointing time. There is no doubt that the very fact that this inquiry took place helped to speed up the production of that concordat.
In 1993 a sub-committee of the Select Committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, carried out an inquiry into the White Paper entitled Priorities for the Science Base. During that inquiry young career scientists forcefully drew our attention to the lack of stability in their careers and often the inability to finish projects because after two years or so they had to look to the future. It was a very unsettling time. Worst of all, sometimes the best obtained a new research project before they had completed their existing work and had to move on in order to assure their livelihood, wasting what might otherwise be two productive years. The evidence taken by that sub-committee clearly indicated that this was a poor way to manage science. There is a degree of exploitation.
The concordat is to be welcomed. The noble Lord, Lord Dainton, has made clear that we must wait to see whether it is as successful as we all hope. One success criterion would be whether there were in place longer-term research fellowships and improved rewards for research workers. The report draws attention to a number of good schemes: the Royal Society's fellowships; the excellent scheme of the University of Warwick; and the Wellcome Trust. The Wellcome Trust has drawn attention time and again to the shortcomings that it sees in the way in which science in this country is managed, particularly in relation to young scientists. I quote the words of Dr. Bridget Ogilvie, director of the Wellcome Trust. She wrote powerfully in the winter 1995 edition of Science and Public Affairs:Government has not secured the trust of these key people [young scientists], an essential ingredient in managing any workforce successfully, and it is increasing the demands made on them without reward. This is the reason why universities often cannot recruit people of the right calibre for their leadership positions".I treat that with particular care because of the excellent example that the Wellcome Trust has set research councils, funding councils and others in addressing these problems. But the root of the problem is the pressure on universities and funding councils to increase productivity. The noble Lord, Lord Dainton, has reminded us of the extent to which the production 991 of graduates has increased without an increase in resources. Research has also kept pace but at the expense of the low-cost contract worker who has been brought in to ensure that, while the greatly increased teaching load is absorbed, the research can continue.
There was always a role for the contract research worker. That is not to say that the principle is basically flawed. In sufficiently small numbers they provide a degree of flexibility and cross-fertilisation between departments. But when the majority of research is being undertaken by those short-term contract workers, it can only be described as an abuse of the system.
As well as the concordat, which we must welcome so far as it goes, there is now to be Sir Ron Dearing's committee of inquiry. It might provide an opportunity to address some of the fundamental issues which lie behind this increasingly serious problem. The lack of relevant experience of graduates coming into industry is something of which the committee was made aware. That often arises from a lack of resources in the universities to keep up to date with new technologies. If the product of a university is in part, as it clearly is, to produce suitable graduates for employment in industry as well of course as producing suitable graduates to continue in the university system, it is a simple failure if we cannot keep up to date with the new technologies and the cutting edge of science.
Again and again—this is a point made by Dr. Ogilvie of the Wellcome Trust—the universities are increasingly falling behind. Even the universities identified as at the leading edge of science often lack the basic equipment that industry would expect. Industry in turn finds it odd that it has then to do some basic training of what is otherwise excellent scientific material.
The last PES round, at the end of last year, was highly damaging in that respect. There was a disproportionate cut in university capital expenditure. That in turn will exacerbate the problem to which I have referred: young research workers unable to undertake the sort of training and research which will be increasingly required by academia and industry.
This highly timely committee report calls attention to a specific problem, but behind it there is much more than this specific problem. It calls attention to a failure to understand just what funding procedures—not just resources—and long-term commitment are required if we are to produce for academia and industry from the science faculties of universities the type of products for which we are looking.
We need to be able to produce young people to continue scientific research in universities. They need a career structure, long-term fellowships, and to be held in much higher esteem by society than they are at the moment. Secondly, we need to produce scientists and engineers for industry. At the moment we are likely to fail in both.
§ 12.22 p.m.
§ Lord Porter of Luddenham
My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, and his committee for this valuable report. The tables in Appendix 4 themselves make it important reading for 992 all who are concerned with university research. I am sure that the committee's conclusions will be generally welcomed.
The extent of the problem brought out by the statistics, which refer incidentally to the pre-1992 universities, may come as a surprise to many readers of the report. As the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, has told us, there are more than 20,000 scientists on short-term contracts in the universities. That is as many as there are established staff in the experimental disciplines.
When I was a research student in the late 1940s—happy days!—the problem was far less severe. Most university appointments were, in the first place, assistant lectureships or demonstratorships and were for periods of three to five years. Full tenured appointments were then made to a chosen few. The advantage of that scheme over the temporary research fellowships—good as they are—was that the assistant lecturer, although not yet in an established post, was a recognised member of staff, with modest teaching and perhaps some small departmental duties as well as research. He felt that he belonged.
It was during the rapid university expansion of the 1960s, when there were more tenured positions than qualified candidates, that most of the temporary posts became permanent ones, and the valuable opportunity of a trial staff appointment was lost—for ever, it seems.
The longer term research fellowships referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, are now provided by the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust and universities such as Warwick and University College London. Although they may not have all the advantages of those temporary posts of the past, they have high prestige, and have been a lifeline to many of our best scientists.
The Royal Society research fellowships—the ones with which I am most familiar—are held by post-doctoral fellows shortly after they have completed their period of study for a postgraduate degree. The fellowships are available for up to 10 years. The Royal Society undertakes not just the selection but the continuing career advice and assessment which are so essential if these people are not to be left stranded when their fellowship ends. The scheme has been very successful in seeing that that does not happen. Of the research fellows who have left since 1983, 73 per cent. have obtained posts in UK universities; 17 per cent. in industry or abroad; and the remaining 10 per cent. other positions. Few failed to obtain employment.
The peer review process which is used to select those scholars is a responsibility performed freely by fellows of the society. I have just completed a comparative assessment of three applicants in my area of study. I found it exacting. The demand far exceeds the supply, and the standard of applicants is something of which this country can be proud.
There are at present about 250 Royal Society fellowships. Even if one includes the university schemes and some expansion, the total number is unlikely to become more than 1,000 compared with the 20,000 on short-term contracts about whom we are so worried. There are those who see a simple solution to that imbalance. It is to reduce drastically the number of 993 untenured posts. But the Select Committee emphasised the importance of those temporary employees to the research enterprise. Along with the graduate students with whom they share the work, they carry out significantly more of the actual practical research than the established staff who have other duties to perform.
There is another more positive reason why it is necessary to employ more research workers than will finally be given permanent posts in university research. Good research scientists are not always immediately recognised, even by themselves. Their talents tend to become apparent only after a few years' experience in real research. Every effort must be made to recognise that talent, or the lack of it, as early as possible, so that the aspirant has an early opportunity to discover where his or her talents lie.
Young people of great promise, whether they are musicians or mathematicians, need to be given several years of reasonable security while they test themselves and while they are tested by others, so that they may use best their gifts on behalf of all of us.
Those who do not proceed to a lifetime career in scientific research are no more wasted than a classics scholar who takes a position outside classics; for example, in the Civil Service. Their excellent scientific education is more needed today than ever: in industry, and teaching, for example, and—dare I say it?—in government.
§ 12.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Platt of Writtle
My Lords, the number of research scientists has increased greatly over the past decade, as noble Lords have pointed out, while the number of established staff has remained fairly constant. That has created a problem over career prospects and insecurity of future employment. The committee was set up to consider and make recommendations for possible solutions to the problem. The noble Lord, Lord Dainton, its most able chairman, kindly invited me to attend its meetings in view of my former experience as chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission and patron of the WISE Campaign; that is Women Into Science and Engineering.
I have great pleasure in endorsing all the recommendations of the committee. Because a great many academic staff were taken on in the 1960s—they will soon be reaching retirement—in the foreseeable future there will be some easing of the problem. However, the imbalance of numbers of researchers as compared with jobs available make the recommendations of the committee of great importance. As it recommends, it is very important in the first place to educate the science graduates broadly so that they have a choice of career paths in the future. In any case, some will find that research is not for them throughout their working lives. Some, through interactive work with industry, I hope, may move from academe into industrial research and see a very rewarding and challenging career in an area which is important if our country is to prosper in a highly competitive world. We need able scientists and engineers applying their intellectual 994 capabilities to the full in both industry and academic research and all being sufficiently broadly educated to appreciate and enhance each other's contributions.
Like the committee, I appreciate the value of sandwich students with their skills borne through practical experience. It is also important, as the committee recommends, that good careers advice should be given to young researchers so that they can, if necessary, broaden their sights as regards their future careers.
As the report states—and noble Lords have paid tribute to it—University College London has a very good scheme, including continual staff appraisal so that contract researchers have a realistic view of their future prospects and can plan accordingly. Where researchers are on short-term contracts it is of great assistance if universities can "bridge fund" them across small gaps so that they are not constantly uncertain of their future employment, with resulting low morale which clearly militates against good research.
I now wish to concentrate on the particular problems of women researchers. As the report states, there are many more women working in scientific and engineering fields. Some find that contract research fits in with their other responsibilities in bringing up families. However, short-term contracts may put them at a disadvantage in terms of maternity leave, pension prospects and keeping up to date with their special expertise in rapidly changing technological fields of work. The Daphne Jackson Memorial Fellowships Trust scheme is a shining light and has helped many women to combine successful scientific and academic careers with responsible family lives.
We cannot afford as a nation to educate and train these highly intelligent women in fields of work where such skills are very scarce and then neglect them when, quite naturally, they too wish to bring up our next generation of children responsibly and keep their expensively acquired skills and expertise up to date.
The Engineering Council, when I was a member, published its career break working party report and produced a video for boards of companies to give helpful practical advice on how to retain these valuable women. That was done with the wholehearted support, in commercial terms, of our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, and has been followed up, I am glad to say, by many industrial companies. Its recommendations on flexible working arrangements are very relevant to the situation of these researchers. Dr. Anne Wright, Vice-Chancellor of Sunderland University, set up a working group at the request of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and made similar recommendations for universities. It is vital that those should be put into action right across the university and industrial research field. That action will prove to be good commercial practice in the future in retaining the expensively trained women scientists and engineers. I am glad to say that many commercial and industrial firms are already carrying out that practice.
The Government, in response to the committee's report, welcomed its attention to women's careers. The Government, in following up the 1993 White Paper 995 Realising our Potential: a Strategy for Science, Engineering and Technology, in 1994 published The Rising Tide, which acknowledged that:Women are the country's biggest single most under-valued and therefore under-used human resource in the fields of science engineering and technology".As a result, they set up a development unit in the Office of Science and Technology which is doing excellent work in this field. As the Government's response states, they will continue to encourage other funding bodies to follow the example of the Royal Society in its Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships, some research councils and the Wellcome Trust in developing user friendly policies for women researchers.
Following the committee's report, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals published a most valuable and welcome concordat with the Royal Society and others to come into effect in September 1996 to improve the career management for contract researchers. I shall not go into details but it undoubtedly addresses many of the recommendations of the committee in a positive and constructive manner. It places emphasis on equal opportunities and monitoring the position of women contract researchers in the future. It makes particular reference to the essential nature of maternity leave provision.
It is particularly important also not to impose age limits on research contractors which can discriminate against women who have taken career breaks. The committee's report quotes Dr. Nancy Lane as saying:One should take not chronological age but academic age into consideration. This would be particularly helpful for women because if they took maternity leave for several years then that loss of time would be disregarded".The Royal Society endorsed that by stating:It should become normal practice, when defining criteria for appointments or funding, to think of career stage as well as age".I hope that in the future the concordat will also develop policies on career stage, as the Royal Society recommends, and will, where necessary, make flexible working arrangements available to contract researchers. Both moves would reduce the risk of indirect discrimination, to which the concordat particularly makes reference.
I am glad that the Government, in publishing their two reports and in response to the committee's report, place great emphasis on the need to encourage developments in science, engineering and technology for the sake of both the future wealth and quality of life of this nation. Without the harnessing of able minds to the study and application of these subjects to the problems of our age the UK would face a miserable future. In encouraging young people into those fields of work, we need all the talents of the nation, not just half. And then we need to retain those girls and women and not lose them when they have children. We must do that by developing user-friendly policies among employers.
As the Government's The Rising Tide said, there is a sound economic case for retaining more women in science, engineering and technologies. I take that from a report published only yesterday by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council which, in response to The Rising Tide report, is now giving 996 positive encouragement to women returning after a career break by introducing five-year part-time Ph.D. studentships specifically to cater for those who wish to resume research. That is excellent news.
The WISE campaign has been encouraging such initiatives for 12 years with some success. We benefit greatly from the support given by the Government in many ways and especially from the development unit in the Office of Science and Technology. That is not a short-term process and it needs to go on well into the 21st century if it is to succeed. Therefore, I conclude by saying: long may that government support last.
§ 12.41 p.m.
§ Lord Lewis of Newnham
My Lords, first, I commend the committee and especially the chairman, my noble friend Lord Dainton, for this very interesting and detailed report on what I believe is a most important matter.
I believe that we should all admit that the report was something of a surprise. I must claim ignorance of the magnitude of this particular problem. Although I have been very much involved in this particular area, I was quite unaware of the impressive data which was being produced. Also, I compliment the committee and the expert adviser, Dr. Whittingham, on the presentation of that particular data in a very user-friendly mode. That has allowed us to begin to appreciate what has been accepted as a common feature within the universities for a number of years, but has never really been brought to the forefront quite so markedly as this report tends to do.
As my noble friend Lord Dainton said, Dr. Whittingham is a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry, an organisation which has been extremely sensitive to that particular problem over a number of years. I am quite convinced that its careful scrutiny in the chemistry area has been responsible, in many instances, for the active participation within the chemistry community to try to solve the problem.
The increase in the number of graduates employed in the universities reflects the increase in the degree of sophistication of research which has been carried out in the universities during the past two decades. In particular, it reflects the increasing number of people who have gone into research. Over 20 years ago when I took the chair of inorganic chemistry at Cambridge, the Research School of Chemistry, which was probably one of the largest in the country, had something in the order of 100 people. They were mainly graduate students, with a sprinkling of post-graduate people, very often from overseas. Today, the department has 400-plus people and that includes a much greater component of post-graduate people being employed. Although it is one of the largest schools, it is comparable with other schools in the country as a whole.
As has been pointed out by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, that increase in size also reflects the degree of sophistication in instrumentation within the university sector. I remember graphically the days when my noble friend Lord Porter and I sat on the chemistry committee of what was then the Science and Research Council, looking at chemistry applications. In those days, applications in the order of £30,000 were looked 997 upon as a major consideration. Today, those applications are touching just short of £1 million. While I recognise the inflationary difference between the 1960s and the present day, that increase reflects the much greater complexity of the instrumentation which is involved in that particular work.
Of necessity, it means that the operations are being run for seven days per week and for 24 hours per day. Therefore, the manning of them has become a major undertaking. If that is coupled with research schools, that involves a tremendous amount of organisation and backing which is very often put in the hands of the temporary graduate staff.
Therefore, we can recognise that the magnitude of the problem is rising. I maintain that it will continue to rise if we are to maintain our position in what is, after all, the international rather than the national league of research. In the decade from 1986 to 1996 the number of academic staff in Cambridge has increased by 25 per cent.—and I emphasise that is across the board, and not just in science—whereas the non-tenured graduate staff has increased by 100 per cent. in the same period of time. That reflects the problem in very stark terms.
I emphasise also that those people feel insecure. They do not feel that they have necessarily been accepted within the system. As is emphasised in this particular report, it is very important indeed that we should recognise that they feel very vulnerable in those circumstances.
I should like to look at the problem in a slightly different way and consider the situation for people in those positions under the age of 30 and over the age of 30, because the research councils, which are responsible for approximately 60 per cent. plus of those employees—take a different view of the age structure of its post-graduate appointments. The SRC, became the SERC—the Science and Engineering Research Council—and has now become the EPSRC. These acronyms are flowing but are also variable in time. In the early days of the 1960s and 1970s, appointments made by the SRC were made for a maximum of five years. They were also restricted to an age group of 30 and below. That was a recognition of the problem of what would happen in the future.
In contrast to that, the MRC was able to employ people on much longer contractual terms without that age restriction applying. It is an interesting feature that if one looks at the data available to us to date, some of the worst examples (if I may use that particular term) occurred in the medical and biological areas. But I am afraid that with the introduction of inter-disciplinary research centres, once again the genesis of which is very much the SERC, there was a break with that early tradition. We are now employing people for longer periods of time—up to 10 years—over a much wider age group. Therefore, the physical sciences are now becoming much more comparable with the biological and medical sciences as a whole.
The under-30 period provided a very important role within the university system. As has been aptly stated by my noble friend Lord Porter, appointments in the 998 early days were temporary, going on to a permanent appointment via the assistant lectureship grade. Since the disappearance of that particular group of people, we now have to employ a new stratagem in order to get the experience into the system. Therefore, certainly in chemistry, post-doctorate appointments to tenured situations normally require a period of four or five years of post-doctorate experience. The under-30s are often used in that particular way.
That brings benefits because, of course, not only do those people gain direct experience in the subjects which they may have been studying but very often that is a time at which people will change from one area to another area. They then may become pre-determined in something which they would not have done had they gone directly into the system from being a graduate student.
Reference has been made on a number of occasions to the recent publication by the CVCP of the concordat. I am sure that we would agree with the outcome of that deliberation. However, perhaps we should put that in the context of what is happening within the university system. Many of our systems have just been frozen in the sense of either the cutting of actual moneys to universities or very substantial restrictions being placed upon them. In many universities there will be no expansion of posts. Indeed, when vacancies arise they will be frozen. That will not help in any way whatever with the recruitment problem that faces us under those circumstances.
Moreover, the flexibility that occurred when I was very actively involved in staff appointments—namely, from the block grant—has now been reduced. It has been transferred through to the research councils, as a whole, which of course in many ways creates an admirable mechanism for providing grants within universities. But the real problem here is continuity. It is indeed a great problem with this particular group of people. They are dependent upon a grant being continued. But if that grant goes to a research council a difficult situation arises, with research councils very often having success rates of no more than 25 per cent. That is a measure of the problem that we shall face in the future. Therefore, although I accept the outcome of the concordat, I worry about the potential of implementing it unless we receive some direct support from the Government or from some other source in that area.
Finally, I turn to the point made in the report about the interaction between industry and academia. I believe that we are all in agreement that universities have been accused for a long time of not interacting well with industry. I think that there is more than an element of truth in that particular statement. However, I have much sympathy with the points made by my noble friend Lord Porter in the research council debate of last week. I believe that we have, perhaps, gone a little overboard on the issue. Industry is becoming so dominant and short termism, so operative in research grant applications, that the basics in research are now suffering, I believe, quite significantly. That is the seedcorn of the future. We can choose to eat it; hut, if we do so, we do so at our peril, as was so aptly put to us by my noble friend Lord Porter.
§ 12.52 p.m.
§ Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior
My Lords, I should like to add my thanks to those already expressed to the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, for his report and also for his very clear introduction to it this morning. The issues identified both by the report and by the noble Lord are, as has been said, important to the future health and welfare of scientific research in this country, in universities, in research institutes and in industry in general.
The figure mentioned in the report, which gives the growth in contractual or non-established research workers as 216 per cent., compared with an increase of only 2.3 per cent. of established staff in universities, should ring alarm bells very loudly. However, one word of caution is that I suspect that there has been a similar trend, though not by any means to the same extent, in a number of other countries in the western world. There is no doubt that that has led to schisms between the established research community and the contractual research community, as has been mentioned.
There are some in research who would debate just who constitutes the underclass in research. Is it the established research worker who has an established post in a university who is burdened by increased teaching loads, administration and without adequate time to undertake research? Alternatively, is it the individual who is non-tenured, for example, and who can work full-time—that is, use 100 per cent. of his time—on research? There are some who would wish not to be in the established position for that very reason. They see university life at present as one where they cannot display and undertake the research that they want to do.
Nevertheless, having said that, there are disadvantages in being in the non-established role; and, indeed, these are mentioned in the report. However, I should like to add two further points which are not mentioned in the report. The first is one that I believe to be particularly important. If one is the holder of a non-tenured or non-established position, very often one is not allowed to make application for or hold a research grant from a research council. That must be done through an established worker in a department.
Secondly—and this point has already been mentioned—a non-established worker coming to the end of his period of contract may in fact spend a goodly proportion of his final year attempting to find other work. Therefore, that might detract—and, indeed, sometimes does—from the research work which he was employed to undertake.
The report contains a significant comment; namely:The universities did not deliberately set out to create a scientific underclass".However, it points out that that is a reaction to the financial environment, with universities being required to take more students but finding themselves unable to increase substantially their establishment of staff members to teach and handle that increased student load. How true that is! Those of us who have been in academic life recently know how difficult that is to cope with.
1000 Of course, it must be recognised that such non-established post holders who are an essential part of university departments—namely, graduate students, post-doctoral positions, post-doctoral holders, together with various grades of scholarships—are also, collectively, the powerhouse that drives research in so many departments. Without them, the department would be so much the poorer. In fact, it would he a very poor department which could not attract graduate students and post-doctoral students into its midst to carry out research. As some of us know, the very good departments are inundated with applicants when positions become available. Therefore, individuals will take a place—sometimes any place—in order to be part of that department.
In addition, one would not expect this corps of postgraduate research workers all to acquire established posts eventually. There has always been an attrition of numbers between post-doctorals and junior established posts. The bottle-neck in the United Kingdom is the scarcity of established posts that become vacant. However, there are some areas—such as clinical medicine and clinical veterinary medicine, which is my own subject—where recently it has been difficult to recruit professional staff with appropriate research training and background to existing established posts. In veterinary medicine the number of veterinary postgraduate research individuals is much lower than we anticipate it should be. It is not a situation which is acceptable. It is due in part to the poor salary structure in universities compared with practice outside, together with the observed lack of time available for research and the poor career pathway that is put before them. To my mind it is the absence in many instances of a clear, recognised pathway to higher academic posts that is missing in this country, with some expectation, based on academic and research performance and on competition, that a tenured position can be achieved in due course.
We have heard of the two bodies that have attempted to deal with this: the Wellcome Trust and the University of Warwick. They have taken steps to offer senior scholarships on a long-term basis, with the expectation that a fully tenured post will be available at the end of them, based, of course, on performance. It is reported that these have been eminently successful, attracting a large number of people of high quality.
Having been concerned with graduate programmes both in the United States and in this country over several years, it is natural for me to compare the two systems, particularly as many of our young people go to the United States for a longer or a shorter time. Some return but others do not. I think we would all agree that the experience that they gain there is extremely valuable and is most useful to them when they return to this country.
I would be the first to admit that the system in the United States is not without its difficulties or its faults. The differences lie not in the quality of the people in research or in the quality of the research undertaken there, but in the general structure of postgraduate programmes and the opportunities that lie beyond them. The structure usually begins with undergraduate research, leading to Ph.D. research, leading to 1001 post-doctoral, and subsequently into the assistant professor ranks—sometimes still supported by what is known as "soft" money—for a period of five to six years when a decision is then taken as to whether the individual joins the established staff. It is highly competitive but nevertheless it is known and appreciated that that is a pathway forward. It would seem that in this country there is no such recognised pathway. I believe we could usefully adopt some parts of the US system, particularly the provision of the slightly senior positions beyond the post-doctoral grades where expectations of performance are great; nevertheless I believe that we have the graduates who can meet those expectations.
As regards women in science, with our existing career pathways it should be possible for women to play an equal role in research, but that does not seem to be the situation. In my profession, for example, of the 350 positions in teaching establishments there is only one full professor who is a woman. She is not a veterinarian either. There are four to five readers and a few senior lecturers sprinkled around. There is no doubt that there has been discrimination against women. It may be inadvertent but it still exists despite the provision of facilities which encourage women to go on to higher positions. There is need for a much greater change in attitude.
I wish to comment briefly on the concordat that has been mentioned. I believe that it will be extremely helpful. I am, however, slightly worried that the smaller funding agencies which do not play a major part in providing research funding but nevertheless help with minor funding especially to young people, might be unable to comply with some of the suggested conditions of the concordat. I would hope that when the concordat is worked out with the charities and the other people who support research, note will he taken of that.
§ 1.5 p.m.
§ Lord Winston
My Lords, I apologise at the beginning of my speech by saying that this is the middle of a working day for me and I may have to leave before the end of the debate as I may be called away. I hope that that is not the case. In this excellent debate many of your Lordships have already mentioned the crucial points, and therefore I hope I shall be permitted to examine the issue from a slightly different tack.
A couple of months ago K. H. S. Campbell and his colleagues from the Roslyn Institute in Midlothian, Scotland published in Nature an article on the generation of sheep clones, having established a stem cell line; that is, a cell line from embryos which they had genetically engineered. This paper received the most extraordinarily unsatisfactory press. The paper was considered to be almost a temporary scandal. The fact of the matter is that it was an example of British research of the highest quality. That research, and its implications, were completely lost to the public in general. I do not know K.H.S. Campbell and I do not know the Roslyn Institute, but I greatly respect what he did.
1002 By using that sort of model it is almost certain that we should be able, in time, to grow stem cells which may enable us to consider how embryos—which so often fail in their growth—grow under optimal environmental conditions. By using that kind of model in sheep, we may overcome one of the major difficulties facing human medicine; namely, the high incidence of foetal abnormality and why it is generated. Further, this was a perfect model for studying the major scientific problem of how cells differentiate and what controls that differentiation. It is important for studying how tissues are made, but it is of great importance to subjects such as cancer medicine.
It occurs to me that one of the most exciting things about the stem cell technology is the possibility that, in time, human medicine may benefit hugely from that invention. Sadly, the night before last Jaymee Bowen died of leukaemia. If we were able to manipulate stem cells, there might come a time when we could generate stem cells which differentiated into a particular tissue. Thus we might generate blood cells, and these could possibly be used for the treatment of leukaemia victims, having genetically engineered those cells so that they were tolerated by the body. I do not think that is a far-fetched idea. It is something which I think in the long-term distance may be possible.
But how did the press react? The press commented a little on the genetic engineering of farm animals. I do not think that the experiment would achieve that, but no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, can correct me if I am wrong. I doubt whether the experiment would be of great importance to agriculture as there are other ways in which we can successfully generate livestock. However, the experiment demonstrated an important basic problem that we face in our society.
We live in a scientifically illiterate society which does not understand its strengths. If I may be flippant for a moment, I wish to refer to my daughter, who will not read this as hardly anyone reads Hansard and therefore anything that we say in here is confidential. My daughter is a bright arts student at a good university. She left her excellent state school with pretty well no knowledge of chemistry, no experience in physics at all and with little understanding of biology. It is sad that she is puzzled at the idea of wiring a three-pin plug. That is the society that we are generating in our schools and, to some extent, in our universities. That point has great relevance to the debate.
I congratulate the Select Committee on this excellent report. It gets to the nub of the problem. I am grateful for the clear way in which the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, set out the problem in his introductory speech. Many points have already been covered by noble Lords with far greater expertise. However, I jotted down a few points that I wish to raise.
One of the problems is that to succeed in obtaining a research council grant one needs ideally to have a first-class honours degree, or at least a good upper second. The research postgraduate is living on his wits. As we have heard, his employment is short term. One factor that noble Lords have not mentioned is the extraordinary loneliness of a research worker. The 1003 truth is that undertaking basic research in most laboratories—as has been described by others than myself—is 90 per cent. depression and 10 per cent. excitement. The depression can be extraordinary.
A long time ago I undertook some experiments on rabbits as a junior researcher. I was lucky because I had reasonable security; I was fortunate in obtaining one of the longer term support grants from the Wellcome Trust. I began a rabbit experiment at about 10 in the morning. Because of the nature of the work that I needed to do, the experiment was to continue until four o'clock the following morning. During that time I took a break perhaps for coffee. The animal house where I worked was bitterly cold. It was not heated and the air-conditioning was not too satisfactory either because of the problems that the university had in maintaining it. I went home to bed and returned the following morning to find that my data was completely ruined because the rabbit had not recovered from the anaesthetic that I had given imperfectly. That was a frequent occurrence. Only with persistence did that experiment produce results that were publishable in a good journal.
We have the problem of the low regard for postgraduate scientists, in particular those on contracts. Points discussed extensively in the document, and I can only support them, are the absence of a proper career structure and facilities for women, which I agree are particularly poor.
I wish to mention one point which has not arisen in the debate. Because of the pressure on university departments, many graduate scientists are pulled in to undertake a number of the teaching activities in those departments. However, those activities are rather poorly recognised in the graduates' assessment and appraisal each year. It does not contribute fundamentally towards the necessary overall research appraisal system, and the achievement of the best possible FC ratings.
As we have heard repeatedly in this House over the past few months, applications for research grants are an extremely chancy business. As the noble Lord, Lord Porter, pointed out, one of the problems is that the Royal Society can fund only very few of those excellent scholarships. As we have heard at other times, 70 per cent. of alpha-rated grant applications, for example, to the Medical Research Council, are turned down. An alpha rating effectively means that this research is regarded as being of international standard.
Although the Select Committee's report points out the need for better appraisal, with which I agree, in many university departments there is increasingly vigorous appraisal. That vigorous appraisal is almost unprecedented for those young scientists compared with any other career structure. Frequently in my medical school one sees scientists with a possible 10-year job with lectureship status who do not pass the appraisal scheme although they have relatively high-quality references and their publishing record is good. It is a major problem. The appraisal in some schools is probably unparalleled in industry or other occupations.
I turn to the problems in medical research. They have not been dwelt on by your Lordships. One of the problems affecting scientists in medical schools is that 1004 those young graduates are undervalued. That is demonstrably obvious because they are paid less than the people with whom they work, often clinicians undertaking similar research side by side on the same bench. Those clinicians will not only be paid more but will have better job security. The young graduates often have quite poor accommodation in medical schools. However, the real problem is their long-term security. Because of the changing career structure in medicine, almost any hospital worker in medicine is guaranteed consultant status at the end of a five to possibly seven-year training stage. But the scientist has absolutely no guarantee of lectureship status. And when he attains that lectureship status he will be paid some £20,000 less in basic salary than the consultant. That is a major problem.
The noble Earl, Lord Selborne—he is not in his place—believed that the report represented a minor scandal. The situation is even more serious. It is a major issue. If we accept—and I believe that it is correct—that in this country our manufacturing industry provides only 25 per cent. of our gross national product, we have to look to the long term and understand how important our science and technology will be in the future. Those sentiments have already been expressed. However, at present we are facing a situation which, sadly, is becoming fairly chaotic. We need to consider exactly how we shall achieve a higher profile for science.
I am unconvinced that at present the Department of Trade and Industry is necessarily the right department for such consideration. We have to consider a long-term, strategic approach for this aspect of our education and science. Any future government, of whatever colour, must commit themselves to far longer and more careful planning in this area. Ultimately our investment in science will be the single most important thing we can do for our own welfare and the welfare of future generations.
§ 1.18 p.m.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, noble Lords may be surprised that a non-scientist is taking part in the debate. I hasten to say that I do so only because I was requested to do so by the noble Lord, Lord Dainton. I take anything that he asks me to do as a command and regard it as part of his idiosyncratic chairmanship.
Looking at the report, and listening to this most interesting debate, the conclusion to which I come is that the Select Committee was attempting to tackle three or four quite different problems which come together but are not evaluated in order of importance. One factor is a justifiable and praiseworthy degree of paternalism. That is to say, here is a group of young researchers for whom the system does not provide sufficiently either in those researchers' present capacity or in relation to their future career prospects. That is a serious and important issue, and suggestions are made for its improvement.
The second is how far the system that has developed in this way is inimical to the long-term interests of scientific research in this country. That is to say, do we treat persons entering on a career of scientific research in such a way as to make the best of their talents in the 1005 present and the future, and by doing so demonstrate to other young people that scientific subjects are worthy of study and offer a possible avenue to a future career? It is well-known that there is some anxiety about the fall-off in the proportion of very able young people at school who choose to specialise in the hard sciences.
The third relates to industry. Are we preparing young people in science who will eventually make their career not in a university or a teaching hospital but in an industrial enterprise? Here again there are suggestions as to the broadening of their curriculum and other ways in which they may be made more competitive in the search for jobs in industry. I regret that there has been no contribution to the debate from a captain of industry. If we are worrying about placing people in industry, we ought to be seeking opinions from their potential employers. That seems to be a gap.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly because we are dealing with a matter of resources, are we spending resources, which we know are limited and will go on being limited, in the best possible way to meet all the different demands on the system?
Noble Lords will be aware that I am perhaps in a minority of one in this House in regarding the expansion that has gone on in British universities in the past decade as highly deplorable—not in itself, but in terms of neglect of the financial implications of what was being done in respect of both teaching and research. If one is not prepared to pay for that number of students to have a first-class experience, then one should not have that number of students, or indeed that number of universities.
I wholly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Winston, that science and the capacity this country has shown for innovation in science should be one of our major preoccupations. From that point of view, is the problem of the contract short-term researcher the most important? My private scientific adviser has held one of the fellowships to which the noble Lord, Lord Porter, drew our attention. He tells me that in his opinion the real problem for the young scientist in getting into an established position is the difficulty then of getting the necessary support for his research. The amount of time that is spent on processing applications to various departments and foundations takes away from time that should be allotted to research. In the humanities and social sciences the experience is identical. Not only does the MRC have to turn down alpha recommendations because it has no money; the same happens with the British Academy, which from this point of view is an additional research council.
The consolation we are offered is that all these major issues will be brought together in the Dearing Inquiry. I ventured to suggest that Sir Ron Dearing was a plumber being called in to do the work of a heart surgeon. Having seen the list of those appointed to the committee, I can only say that I prefer the plumber to the plumber's mate. I am not at all sure that a committee constituted in this way will really tackle these fundamental and interconnected elements of the situation. It is a subject to which I am sure the House will return. How do we secure the base for scientific 1006 research? How do we have a career structure which encourages young people to regard research as the avenue to a lifelong career? And how do we maintain in a situation of diminishing resources for universities the combination of teaching and research which was at one time—and ought to be again—their primary glory?
§ 1.26 p.m.
§ Lord Craig of Radley
My Lords, for me it was an educating privilege to be a member of the Select Committee under the able chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Dainton. He and other members of the committee brought to our deliberations a wealth of experience and knowledge of the world of research and academia that I do not possess. Nevertheless, given the many valuable and informative witnesses whom we questioned, the depth of the written evidence and the expertise around our table, it was not long before I began to feel what the main themes of our report might encompass. The noble Lord, Lord Dainton, and others have already covered many of those fully and clearly; so I would just like to make four points which particularly struck me as a result of our inquiry and deliberations.
First, I was disconcerted to discover that there appeared to be no universally accepted concept, let alone a structured regime, for reporting on and guiding the contract researchers in their university departments—although I listened with interest to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Winston, about appraisal and was encouraged by it. In my experience the value of annual reporting should not be under-rated. It provides not only helpful guidance for the subject of the report but also a useful and sometimes character forming discipline for the compiler of the report. It must be something of a surprise for the contract researcher after years of study and presumably regular assessment and reports on progress through to his or her degree, to find that although still working in the same university campus environment he or she may no longer receive any of the formal guidance or help which their career and their development would call for. Combined with an apparent lesser standing within the university or department (as compared to their tenured contemporaries) it is worth stressing that such a situation, where it exists, should be tackled and a structured reporting regime put in hand.
Secondly, our report makes a number of further proposals designed to help the contract researcher redress any feeling of being a second-class academic; for example, greater efforts to introduce longer contracts and some form of bridging arrangements where required between contracts, and flexibility to allow for maternity and child-rearing which would be more in keeping with the trends and fashion of our contemporary society. The proposals should help to maximise the large investment in education that has already been made, from which it is right to look for a wealth creating and value-added return to both individual and country. Giving the contract researcher greater status and say in his or her academic institution seems only right. But I particularly hope that the well established members of the tenured faculty will welcome and appreciate the proposed 1007 changes, some of which seem already to be in hand following the concordat to which many noble Lords referred.
The tenured staff have traditionally, and rightly, enjoyed the various privileges and status of their university or college appointment. I hope that they will be quick to accept and acknowledge that the extension to their contract colleagues of many of those advantages is important and must not be seen and derided as some downgrading of their own position as tenured faculty. Much as I support the suggestions in the report, I recognise that there may be those who will feel that some of their own unique advantages have been diminished or watered down. Good leadership from college and departmental heads will be called for to ensure that such perceptions do not take hold. We must also realise that careers in academia can be no less exposed to the rigours of economic pressures and the employment climate, where a job for life is no longer perceived as a universally achievable objective. Academia cannot hope to escape that real life situation.
My third point relates to the theme of getting better value for the working time of a contract researcher. The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, drew noble Lords' attention to that point. Several witnesses pointed out that the pressing need to have his (or her) next job settled may lead the researcher to spend more time on seeking the next contract than on finishing off to best advantage the one on which he or she is currently engaged. A further and perhaps more alarming thought was that, because the next contract may be judged in large part on the reported and published success of past endeavour—or perhaps, more cynically, successful publication: the Brownie points to which the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, referred—there is a temptation to tackle the less demanding and less innovative aspects of a task. Writing and publishing a report or series of reports is too widely perceived as giving a better chance of landing a new contract than is a line of research which is still too speculative or way out to reach a reportable conclusion.
My fourth point, on which I believe there is still more to be done, concerns exploiting, to the benefit not only of the research team and its members but also of UK Ltd., the marketable benefits of the research. The path from discovery through copyright to development and marketing of a viable product or service still needs greater and continuing emphasis. I was impressed by the amount of effort and thought that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, has put into those aspects for a number of years, and very successfully too. Our own country's track record is generally acknowledged to be inadequate in that field, though no doubt there will be some who will say that we have been learning from past mistakes. But every time that we see a liquid crystal display, we should remind ourselves that it was a homegrown defence research breakthrough which we failed to exploit in its widespread daily uses in today's society. I hope that the enlightened thrust to bring together academia and industry to their mutual advantage will be rigorously pursued.
I greatly enjoyed the opportunities which this particular study gave for understanding and, I hope, helping to improve the careers and value of contract 1008 research staff in academia. The task is not one in which an obvious end result can be identified and reached. The processes that the committee identified and recommended will need to be kept constantly in mind as each new generation of post-doctorates comes into the market, with hard earned and expensively backed studies developed and ripened to exploit the wealth and richness of our nation.
§ 1.35 p.m.
§ Baroness Hooper
My Lords, I too was not a member of the Select Committee, nor am I a scientist. But I felt that I should participate in today's debate for two reasons. In part, I participate because of my general interest in the subject. During my year as a Minister in the Department for Education, I was involved with the introduction of the reforms in what became the Education Act 1988. We had very wide-ranging debates in your Lordships' House over issues of university funding, academic freedom and the like, and many dire predictions were made. Therefore, I have followed with interest some of the issues consequent upon those reforms.
Also, I felt it right that I should speak because I am a non-executive director on the board of SmithKline Beecham, a British-American pharmaceutical company, which in 1995 spent £653 million worldwide on research, with expenditure in the United Kingdom of over £230 million. It is therefore an important employer of graduate scientists. I do not pretend in my capacity to fill the captain of industry gap that my noble friend Lord Beloff identified, but I can assure your Lordships that a strong academic science base is important to SmithKline Beecham and companies like it, both to meet the need for well qualified recruits trained in modern technologies and to allow effective collaboration with university departments.
I believe that it is important in the context of this debate for industry to be aware of what is being said by an eminent group, such as the Select Committee of your Lordships' House. I continue to believe that industry itself has a role in initiating and ensuring dialogue with academia and indeed in active participation. I do not believe that industry can just sit back and wait for somebody else to create the mechanisms. Industry should take initiatives at all levels of the education system in order to stimulate and encourage more interest and higher participation in the science sector.
I do not wish to suggest that some companies do not already do a great deal, but clearly, more could be done. Therefore, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, and his committee on producing a report which not only analyses the current position on academic research and identifies failures and unsatisfactory development but also puts forward constructive suggestions for improving the lot of researchers.
Clearly, there is concern in industry that many university courses are not receptive to its needs. For example, many graduates in chemistry and bioscience disciplines from British universities often do not have experience with the modern instrumentation and data-holding methods used by industry. That lack of 1009 familiarity with leading edge equipment necessitates a period of remedial education by industry once employment starts. There is also a poor level of business awareness among bioscience graduates, as well as other graduates, which is often the result of a too narrowly academic based curriculum.
I believe that Sir Ron Dearing's committee of inquiry into higher education is a welcome step. But it is important that the needs of science are fully considered by that inquiry. I feel sure that the report and, I hope, this debate may play a part in ensuring that is done.
The report also dealt with the need to encourage universities to develop mechanisms for secondments between industry and academia. There is reference to encouraging them to pay particular regard to small and medium-sized enterprises. That is extremely important. But in suggesting that, it should not in any way lessen the need to remind the larger companies that they have a responsibility in this area. They often have a proven track record in R&D and are major employers, and to some extent they also play a role in encouraging the development of small and medium-sized enterprises.
In a way, that is the same point as I made to the then Secretary of State for Health, Virginia Bottomley, when she was launching the Prescribe UK campaign, which was aimed at encouraging new pharmaceutical companies to come and set up businesses in the United Kingdom, making much of the fact that we can offer them a good academic science base here. That campaign was launched almost two years ago. It seemed to me at the time, and still seems to me now, that there is no point in encouraging new companies to come and set up here if we do not cater for the existing established companies which are already providing employment in this country.
I was a little concerned at the outset when the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, referred to women as a "depressed group" within a "disadvantaged group"—I believe that those were more or less his words. I welcome therefore the contribution of my noble friend Lady Platt, as it provided suggestions for a way forward as well as covering the ground on what is being done to improve the lot of women in this field. I cannot usefully add anything to what she said. However, it prompted me to feel that I could quote two examples of women in science who shine through as role models and whose successors should inspire and encourage others. I met both only recently in the context of meetings of the All-Party Chemical Industries Group.
The first is Helen Sharman. Your Lordships will remember that she was our first woman astronaut. She spent time in space with a Russian team and conducted research and experiments on that journey. Among other things, she is now addressing groups of schoolchildren and young people and showing them what an exciting career a scientific career can be. She deserves mention and congratulations on what she is doing.
The second role model is perhaps a less well-known name, for the present. She is Kate Mills who only last week received the Chemical Industry Young Person of the Year award. Kate is a research assistant with Pfizer 1010 and won the national title against stiff competition from the other four regional finalists, who happened to be young men. The candidates were chosen on the basis of first-class ability at work, leadership and communication skills and an interest in community activities—quite a wide base. She will become a young ambassador for the chemical industry and take part in its programme for industry-related events throughout the year. I believe that she will provide an inspiration for others. The award and the thinking behind it is a good example of showing what a useful contribution industry can make to encourage young people in particular.
I believe it was the noble Lord, Lord Lewis, who said that the report we are considering is important because it demonstrates the extent and size of the issues concerned as well as their substance. It has an important role because of that. I support the recommendations and hope that the report and this debate will find a wider audience than the noble Lord, Lord Winston, suggested. I enjoyed listening to the contributions and learnt a great deal.
I should like to end by repeating what I said at the outset: that everything should not be left to government. Industry has a role and a responsibility to take initiatives and to be active in developing and improving links with academia. For my part, I shall do all in my power to ensure that that happens.
§ 1.46 p.m.
§ Baroness Park of Monmouth
My Lords, as a former head of an Oxford college which was a Dorothy Hodgkins college, I am a most concerned observer. I set up close links between my college and industry which brought us IBM and ICL Visiting Fellows and a GEC lecturership. The annual Open Evening for Industry held at Somerville enabled chiefs of industry to meet the whole second year—a learning experience for both sides. Naturally, therefore, I am a strong believer in close partnership between industry and the academic world and in the potential of women both in science and in industry.
The deeply interesting report we are discussing today has much that is just to say about the particular problems of women in research. But, before I turn to that, I should like to say something in this context about value for money and the importance of making choices in the spending of public money. According to a CVCP report of June 1995, The Economic Impact of International Students on UK Higher Education—language more pleasing to Ministers than to me, but nevertheless appropriate—UK higher education enjoys a very high reputation in overseas markets, based on the quality of teaching and research. It is vitally important that adequate investment goes into maintaining quality, to preserve the stuff of goodwill which the product enjoys".1011 The report continues,The financial health of many higher education institutions is very sensitive to the presence or absence of international students. Their intellectual well-being is equally sensitive. Many jobs in the UK are dependent on the presence of international students in the UK: the sector is a much under-rated contributor to UK export performance. The presence of this large constituency"—I interject to say that overseas postgraduates constitute one-third of the postgraduate population—and the economic and non-economic benefits it confers, should not be taken for granted. In an increasingly competitive market the quality of the environment within which the service is provided as well as the quality of the service itself will determine whether international students become more or less important".We know that according to the CVCP the presence of those students generates £1 billion annually to the UK economy. In the interests of that famous mantra "value for money" we have to care for the scientific goose that lays the golden eggs. Perhaps I can add that the converse is also true. We should try to ensure, in considering UK participation in the European Framework Programme 5—in itself a good thing and now under consideration—that the quality of projects funded by the programme should not he lower than those funded in the UK. There should be proper monitoring and evaluation. At present post hoc evaluation is apparently non-existent.
There should be proper accountability along the lines of our own research council's system of evaluation. I find it shocking that the programme of work in British universities, having proved very expensive, has required further subsidies from the UK science budget and from HEFC grants. No small part of the cost arises, it seems, from the usual expensive and unwieldy bureaucracy which is, alas, a hallmark of many Commission-led endeavours.
Last, but by no means least, it is deeply disturbing that the joint research centre is apparently,a vast and unaccountable black hole down which huge amounts of European Union money pour for no discernible benefit".I feel that this issue, and the need to maintain our own scientific research reputation if we are to keep our international reputation, are very relevant to the future—or non-future—of our scientific research base and the careers of those who work there.
It is vital to define what we mean by value for money. Does it make sense in terms of preserving our human resources, our most valuable assets, for the Medical Research Council, as was said earlier, to find itself compelled to reject 70 per cent. of alpha-rated proposals for long-term strategic research? Does it make sense, given that our reputation for high quality research is a vital factor in attracting international postgraduate students, to cut capital university funding by 31 per cent? Forty per cent. of all US overseas investment and 42 per cent. of similar investment from Japan comes to the UK because of the strength of the UK science base. How long will that last when the career prospects in academic life of the vast majority of our own science graduates are so clearly under threat, as the report we are discussing demonstrates?
The issue addressed by the report which must concern all of us is the appallingly precarious situation of contract researchers in the sciences, not least the women 1012 among them. Unless the Government—this is a national public need which cannot be left to industry, though industry is an important partner—can ensure stable core funding to a much greater extent, to enable both more permanent academic posts and longer and better funded contract posts, young scientists will have little choice but to migrate to the Civil Service, industry and anywhere else where they can, with more settled prospects, plan their lives as they cannot at present do. The major defect is that contract researchers in the sciences are relatively disadvantaged in terms of career progression, salary, continuity of work, access to facilities available to established staff, and participation in the affairs of the university that employs them.
The universities themselves can and should do more to improve their status and the facilities they need. I am glad to say that Oxford, both at college and university level, has done something about crèches but that is only one issue compared to the financial uncertainty, the living from hand to mouth, that is the lot of young and not-so-young post dots. I have drawn on the experience of an outstanding Somerville science graduate who went on to do a Ph.D at Cambridge but who is now a high flyer in the Civil Service where her training serves her well. She told me that many of her contemporaries left the world of science for other jobs because there were no prospects except while they were young and cheap, no hope of permanent jobs with tenure, little certainty of more than two years' security at a time. She knew 30 and 40 year-olds in the same situation, with no pension prospects and never able to plan ahead—for instance, never able to take on a mortgage—because the next contract, if it came, might be in another place. I should add that she herself moved to the Civil Service as a positive choice because she actually wanted a career change.
The uncertainty made the forming of relationships very difficult, especially if the partners found themselves, within a year, with job prospects in quite different places. She also regretted the atmosphere engendered by the need to compete for money in terms of assessment based on the number of articles published and cited by others. People were not only tempted to produce quantity rather than quality but to write about safe issues which would be cited and familiar to all rather than to write about unfamiliar "blue-sky" areas of research. She added rather sadly that Japan actually invests in pure research and has therefore been able sometimes to proceed by quantum leaps; for instance, in the field of superconductivity. She felt, as do many of her contemporaries, that it was nevertheless astonishingly wasteful to put so much money into funding postgraduate scientific research in terms of the initial research awards, such as the excellent SERC grant, and then fail to follow it up with adequate support when they moved into the world of work. She quoted one contemporary who, since they both went down in 1988, has done a Ph.D, held two post-doctoral appointments in Oxford and is now moving to one in America but still has no long-term career prospects.
Only those who, first, have no personal commitments and/or, secondly, have a total commitment to research will wish to spend their working lives under such a 1013 regime. It is of course particularly hard for women who wish to combine a career with children. She saw many of the problems, however, as common to both sexes and she distinguished, as I do, between acting to reduce the problems of women and discriminating positively for them, something she would firmly reject.
Another distinguished Somerville scientist, now retired and an FRS, who waited until her fifties until she achieved permanent tenure, believes that as more women achieve posts of influence both on selection boards and in the academic hierarchy, as is already happening in the Law, the problems specifically relating to women will become less. But there are things which can and should be done to reduce this glaring inequality. Of course there is never enough money for everything. But can we afford as a country to waste our human resources, and in particular waste one-half of those human resources, by failing to provide the conditions in which they can flourish and be productive?
§ 1.56 p.m.
§ Lord Phillips of Ellesmere
My Lords, I must apologise for the fact that I was not able to attend the opening speeches of the debate and especially for missing the introductory speech of my noble friend Lord Dainton. As a member of the sub-committee, perhaps I may say how very much I enjoyed the experience of serving under my noble friend's expert chairmanship. I should add that it was a particularly poignant experience for me in that he was the first chairman of the Advisory Board for the Research Councils and I was the last. Not having heard most of the debate, I run the risk of repeating comments that have already been made, so I shall confine myself to two brief points.
First, I welcome the production of the concordat and, having played some small part in the early history of this effort, I do not underestimate the difficulties that had to be overcome. I hope that the universities and senior scientists will respond appropriately to what it says. Secondly, I cannot help but regret that it has been necessary to guide universities through this concordat, together with leading research scientists, in behaving towards the rising generation of scientists with the guidance, leadership and encouragement that they need and deserve. I know that there are honourable exceptions, just as I personally am only too well aware of dwelling in a rather fragile glasshouse. But I refer here to paragraph 4.9 of the report which says:Other witnesses stated that another area where contract research staff were abused was in their working relationship with their team leaders. ICI felt that they often 'seemed to be used as hired hands by the principal researchers who direct their work, with little thought being given to their personal and professional development—"'.Let me illustrate an older and better tradition with a personal anecdote. Some 35 years ago I had the privilege of being a research worker at the Royal Institution in London which was then under the direction of the famous physicist, W.L. Bragg. At that time, in collaboration with an Indian friend and colleague, Dr. Chandrasekhar, I played a part in developing a method for using polarised X-rays to make 1014 crystallographic measurements and in constructing a device to produce those polarised X-rays. When it came to writing an account of this research, my colleague and I were very keen indeed that Bragg, who had shown great interest in the work, should be a joint author of the paper. "Certainly not", he said. "If I were an author everyone would think that the ideas were mine". I should perhaps add that Bragg gave me and my colleague career advice of the highest quality and took the responsibility on himself of ensuring my support as a contract research worker until, with his active help, I obtained a tenured position in Oxford at the age of 42. In the hope that the noble Lord, Lord Winston, underestimates the influence of your Lordships' debate and the circulation of Hansard, I commend that model to present academic research leaders.
§ 2 p.m.
§ Lord Redesdale
My Lords, it was a privilege to serve on this committee. However, I felt a bit of a fraud because my background is not in science, but archaeology. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, will forgive me if I do not look at the details of the report. I believe that it will be most useful and an informative tool for people looking at the worrying situation among research graduates. However, one aspect of the report should have been stressed more fully; that is the problem of funding. The whole situation that has led to this regrettable problem faced by research graduates is that it is almost impossible for universities to engage themselves in the good practices of employers because they do not find themselves with the financial stability to meet those commitments.
If noble Lords will forgive me for being blunt, I believe that contract research is the cheapest form of any employment. It is not a problem which affects just the university element of our society. I know from my experience in the City that it is a growing area because employers find it far cheaper. As the noble Baroness, Lady Park, has already pointed out, few employers want to burden themselves with the problem of pensions and matters of that kind when they can get away with the situation that exists at present.
The universities are at present finding themselves in great financial difficulties. I speak as a member of the Court of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. The present situation exacerbates one which was first faced by research graduates; namely, that universities have changed the way in which they look at research. They have changed it from something which was a fundamental core of a university's activity for the sake of science, to a form of income. Many universities see research as being the basic financial lifeline that they need in today's society. I join with the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, and assure him that he is not in a constituency of one in saying—and I agree with him—that the expansion of the university system, without a corresponding expansion in university funding, will exacerbate the problem in coming years. A number of universities are already finding themselves in difficulty. I believe that the report by Sir Ron Dearing will come too late. A few of the universities will be seriously pressed financially before any action has been taken.
1015 As regards universities looking at research as a form of income, the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, said in his speech that he was leaving out the new universities. I believe that that is a mistake because the new universities are coming into direct competition with the older universities for research funds. It is becoming an extremely competitive field. This competition has led to many of the universities looking to undercut other universities. They are now seeing each other as being in opposition, which is something that probably never happened in the past, apart from in the academic field.
The effect on contract researchers is that the money available for research is severely limited and therefore teams that are bidding for work have to be extremely focused in what they will be bidding for and also make sure that they are limited to a time scale. That again exacerbates the problem of contract researchers because they are caught by the fact that a research project which is funded may last for only two to three years. It is becoming increasingly rare, as the report points out, for research to continue for many years and being renewed on a five-year or 10-year basis.
One area of the report which is particularly interesting is the chapter which deals with advantages and disadvantages. The only advantage put forward seriously was that contract researchers could move from one institution to another and in their chosen field. That is only an advantage at the very beginning of a career, when a person enters the profession. But as the noble Baroness, Lady Park, has pointed out, when that situation continues it turns to a disadvantage. Therefore, in one respect that problem was sneaked into the advantages category because it could be seen as an advantage to be listed.
The disadvantages make a far chunkier chapter and are based on the financial resources that the employers can put forward towards hiring staff. That is not to say that the universities should, as employers, not have responsibilities that other institutions take upon themselves. In some of the evidence that we were given there was a definite indication that the universities were passing on responsibility without looking to the long term. A term has been brought up and it is particularly ugly; namely, "short-termism". It seems to be endemic in the way in which universities are looking at the finance structure of research graduates. A number of cases were brought forward. There was the University of Warwick scheme and also the Wellcome Trust fellowship schemes, which were extremely forward-looking. There was a great deal of good in them. However, many universities do not see it as their responsibility to take them on board in the long term.
The report lists a number of the problems encountered by research graduates. They were brought closely to the attention of the committee when we took evidence in Edinburgh—in what was held as a private conversation—from a group of young researchers who listed a number of the problems that they faced individually. Some of the more important of those problems included the pressure that many researchers feel themselves to be under as they have to work constantly towards targets and, just as they are trying to reach the conclusions of their work towards the end of 1016 what is often a three-year contract, they then have to spend a lot of time looking for other work. Many of the team leaders also reported that they felt under pressure at that point when looking for other places for members of their team if the research project was not to be continued.
There was a constant complaint about lack of resources. Everybody in university circles raises that point these days. We also heard about morale, to which the noble Lord, Lord Winston, drew attention. We were told of colleagues who had dropped out of the profession because they could not handle the uncertainty permeating the whole profession. As the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, pointed out, that was exacerbated by the treatment that they received. One of the prime recommendations of the report is that contract researchers should be given almost the same status as those who are permanently funded. It seems ridiculous that there should be such a distinction, especially given the number of contract researchers—their numbers have almost doubled in the past 10 years—who get one three-year contract after another with an institution. They can often work for that institution for a longer period than some of its permanent staff yet have few of the advantages of, and less status than, the permanent staff.
The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, pointed out that that is leading to attrition. One of our major concerns was not that attrition is taking out those people who are not suited to contract research, but that it is taking out some of the brighter elements—not only leading to them resigning from that particular subject, but to them leaving the science base altogether. I believe that the Government have a role in solving the problem. The universities are in a difficult situation. They are operating under financial constraints. It is for the Government to look at the problem more closely.
§ 2.11 p.m.
§ Lord Haskel
My Lords, this is my first report as a member of your Lordships' Select Committee on Science and Technology and I, too, would like to put on the record how impressed I have been by the hard work and dedication shown by the committee and its staff. The chairman and clerk drove the work forward with great commitment and I found the experience most rewarding. The delay in debating the report in your Lordships' House has been because of the ill health of the chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Dainton. I am delighted to see the noble Lord back fit and well. Perhaps I may add that I did not find his chairmanship idiosyncratic at all.
Many noble Lords will share the pleasure, expressed by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, in learning that an early initiative reflecting the recommendations of the report was taken in Scotland by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and that that was soon followed by a concordat in England and Wales. That provides us with a model of good practice which I hope will be built on. As other noble lords have told us, it does not cover all the contract researchers.
1017 As the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, said, the need for this inquiry emerged from the concern that there had been very little growth in, and change of, personnel during the 1980s and early 1990s in established science and technology academic staff although there had been a large increase in the number of non-tenured staff on short-term contracts, almost exclusively working on research. The noble Lord explained how all that came about. Our concern was that that discouraged young people from taking up a career in science and that it particularly disadvantaged women scientists.
We also looked into the proposal that there should be a research Masters degree as an intermediary stage between a first science degree and entry into research or moving on to a Ph.D. The report tried to establish the facts. It also looked at the advantages and disadvantages of the various terms of employment between long and short-term staff.
I believe that few members of the committee doubt that short-term contract work for scientists is here to stay. It is clear from the debate that other noble Lords agree with that observation. This applies not only to universities but to industry, and increasingly to all areas of employment. The phenomenon is being increasingly debated. Indeed, the RSA started a national debate entitled "Towards a New Definition of Work" to try to understand better the implications of this kind of change for society, industry and education. What we have learned about short-term contract work in this study can be applied also to work in a much wider area.
I agree with other noble Lords that the important problem thrown up by the report concerns the supply of scientists, the ageing of permanent staff at universities and colleges, the loss of young scientists because of the short-term contract system and the difficulties put in the way of women scientists by the system, so clearly described by the noble Baroness, Lady Platt. The loss of scientists was graphically illustrated in a discussion document published by the Science Alliance in March of this year:Overall, one-third of all science contract staff leave every year, over half of whom leave science employment entirely, even though over three-quarters of such leavers have by then gained science Ph.Ds".What a waste! However, it is encouraging that each year almost 100,000 young people leave school as aspiring scientists. Ten years later these people end up as 4,500 post-graduates and 10,000 support science graduates in science careers. Of course, not everyone wants to go into a career in science, but a loss of 85 per cent. must be worrying. It is worth noting that two-thirds of contract staff are under 34 and that one-third of these are women. We are losing our next generation of scientists and adding to the gender imbalance. A major reason for this loss must be the way in which the short-term contract system is managed. Many noble Lords have spoken about the problems put in the way of career researchers by the system. But as the system is here to stay we must find a more effective way to manage it and to conserve the scientists.
1018 I know that it is dangerous to believe something on which most economists agree, and it is perhaps even more dangerous to believe it when a number of politicians also agree. However, there is a consensus that our future economic prosperity depends to a great extent on our scientists and technologists to make the economy innovative and competitive. The noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, and other noble Lords have confirmed this. The investment in training and educating our scientists is to an extent wasted if a large number of people leave science, even though they contribute to the science literacy called for by my noble friend Lord Winston. The most successful investments are those which are nurtured and looked after. If we do not look after our scientists I go further than the noble Lord, Lord Lewis, and say that we shall be guilty of losing both the seedcorn and the crop.
The report recommends several ways to improve the management of the short-term contract system, thereby encouraging more young people to stay in science. It recommends that short-term contract staff should have the same status and rights as long-term colleagues and that they should be involved in the universities and not made to feel outsiders or an underclass. In essence, they should become stakeholders. Funds should be earmarked to bridge the gaps between contracts and longer-term fellowships for the most able scientists. Barriers to women should be removed and maternity provisions, child-care facilities and retraining needs should be provided at universities as in other areas of employment.
I believe that one of the most important proposals in the report is that university careers services should serve contract staff as well as undergraduates. These highly trained scientists should not be lost because of poor career structure. The Government have themselves acknowledged this need. In Realising our Potential they say at paragraph 7.28:While individuals must remain free to exercise choice in such matters, they ought to do so with the benefit of professional career advice counselling".Many noble Lords have spoken of the importance of professional advice to help young people find out about themselves and avoid taking a succession of short-term contracts in the hope that they will lead to a long-term career in a university or company when in reality they will lead to unemployment. That is because their job lasts only as long as the research funding, which makes it difficult for them to have established appointments.
I join the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, in the hope that our report helped the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council to recognise this quickly, when early this year it launched an initiative with four aims: first, to establish a network of advisers in Scottish higher education institutions; secondly, a series of courses dealing with career development for the research staff on temporary contracts; thirdly, to share information about research vacancies in Scotland; and fourthly, funding has been provided to help institutions adopt good practice.
Work in Scotland is proceeding under the co-ordination of Professor Juliet Cheetham, who has visited all 21 Scottish higher education establishments. The objectives of the Scottish initiative are reflected in 1019 England and Wales in a concordat which was developed by the research councils, the Royal Society, the British Academy, the CVCP, and the Standing Conference of Principals. The research councils have undertaken that their grant regulations will reflect the concordat's provisions. I hope that the Minister will tell us that that has the support of the Government. Both the Scottish initiative and the concordat accord with the recommendations of the Select Committee.
As the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, told us, we need to face up to the fact that even the best-intentioned organisation is not going to take as much trouble over its short-term staff as it does over its permanent staff in matters of training, career development and pensions. Short-term contracts do lead to feelings of insecurity. We need to acknowledge the legitimacy of those feelings and, as a society, put in place those measures which will help people to cope.
In case your Lordships had not noticed, this is the European Year of Lifelong Learning. That is designed to encourage people to take individual responsibility for their own development and progress, and much of your Lordships' Select Committee report is in sympathy with this. Lifelong learning and accompanying guidance is high on Labour's agenda for Britain's competitiveness and its citizens' personal development and wellbeing. We welcome this report as an important contribution towards this goal. I hope that the Minister will do the same.
§ 2.22 p.m.
§ Lord Fraser of Carmyllie
My Lords, the Government have already formally welcomed the report which has been the subject of our debate. But I should like to repeat our gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, and his colleagues on the committee for producing such a valuable document. Today, we have heard additional testimony from the noble Lord and from many others with great experience in the field, through to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips.
The report and the debate have concentrated on the issues associated with the employment of contract research staff in universities. As the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, accepted, the Government openly acknowledged those in the 1993 White Paper Realising Our Potential, and I shall not restate them now. I must, however, emphasise one or two related background points which, though familiar enough to the committee and your Lordships, may not be always so widely appreciated outside.
First, funding research by fixed-term project grants brings with it many benefits. It is flexible, and it opens up new opportunities not just for research, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Lewis, said, for research staff, especially those who are newly qualified. It is important that that is recognised. The noble Lord, Lord Porter, and my noble friend Lord Soulsby recognised that there was value in that.
Secondly, there has been a considerable growth in the funding of university research from a wide range of sources, and in accompanying numbers of fixed-term contract staff employed by the universities. That is not 1020 a new phenomenon. It has been taking place steadily at least since the mid-1970s. It is an area where there has been an overall increase in research activity and in research employment.
However, our concern relates to the tensions that have been caused by that growth and, in particular, their resolution. The Government set out their thinking in the 1993 White Paper and we now have the committee's recommendations. In the light of the observations made by your Lordships today, I wish to review what has been done by university employers, the research funders and the Government.
The committee recognised, as do the Government, that the university employers have the frontline responsibility for the management of their staff. Indeed, most of the recommendations are directed to the universities. There is a growing awareness among the universities themselves that if they are to excel in research and attract first-rate researchers they need to excel demonstrably in the management of their research staff. What is at issue fundamentally is the way in which they manage not only their staff but their resources and cashflows to ensure appropriate personnel and career management.
It ought to be acknowledged that from their existing resources some universities have already set good examples. Some have already opened up their career service to contract research staff; for example, Stirling University. The University of Warwick has been singled out during the debate for funding fellowships, but that accolade applies also to Leeds University. Some have already made available a central pool to provide bridging funds between research grants where the circumstances warrant that. My noble friend Lord Beloff saw advantage in that.
The challenge is to find a way of broadening and strengthening such spontaneous initiatives. A way was found in the concordat recently agreed between the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, the research councils and the Royal Society. The concordat, which was engineered by the Office of Science and Technology, is a major step forward in securing better career management of university contract research staff. It is the first time that university representatives and research funders have worked together in this way.
The concordat specifies explicitly that the terms and conditions of employment of contract staff should be in line with those of established staff and that there should be regular review and career guidance. Those provisions correspond closely with the first two recommendations in the committee's report, and they are particularly important.
Equally important, however, is the shared understanding between university employers and research funders, which the concordat confirms. It is an understanding of what is required to ensure that those with the greatest potential can be identified and nurtured; that all can receive appropriate advice on the opportunities inside and outside academic research; and that a degree of continuity is available where the research in question justifies it as well as the potential 1021 of the individual concerned. All those are designed to overcome what the noble Lord, Lord Winston, described as the loneliness of the contract researcher.
What is now important is to make that concordat work. It is a framework. It will require the active partnership of all those with an interest, not just the university representatives and the research funders but the principal investigators in the laboratories and especially the contract research staff themselves. A working group led by the Office of Science and Technology is overseeing initial implementation. The research councils are amending their grant regulations so that from 1st September recipients of new grants will be expected to operate under the terms of the concordat. The CVCP will be circulating the document to universities, explaining in particular the arrangements for monitoring and reviewing progress.
The charities, which are of course important funders of university research, are not formal signatories. But my understanding is that the CVCP has had fruitful discussions with them, and that they effectively subscribe to nearly all the concordat's provisions. Where, for complex reasons, they cannot do so—and this relates principally to the provisions on maternity—they are likely to come to alternative arrangements. That is good news. So too is the welcome which the AUT (Association of University Teachers) has given to the agreement.
The CVCP is now considering with the research funders and others what further publicity to give the concordat. One option we have in mind is a conference which could also be used to disseminate existing good practice—to which I have referred in the universities.
The detailed implementation of the concordat will be largely for the university employers. It was never the intention of the research funders to encroach on matters which must properly be for autonomous universities. However, the concordat says explicitly that contract researchers should enjoy rewards and other terms and conditions of employment which are in line with those for established staff. The noble Lord, Lord Craig, emphasised the value of that. Access to facilities is cited as an example, and this was one of the committee's broader concerns. I am sure that the concordat will be an encouragement to universities to review their existing practices in this area, where this is necessary.
University employers do face difficulties offering wide-ranging career advice, both to research staff and to students. Other bodies in the public and private sector can help. Some are already doing so. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, and others referred to the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, which has launched a £200,000 initiative to strengthen career guidance for contract research staff. I am sure that is broadly welcome. The DfEE's higher education projects fund, though targeted at students, is offering up to £1 million over two years for projects to strengthen career management skills in universities and to disseminate good practice.
Some companies engaged in collaborative research with universities also play a part in broadening career experience and offering practical advice to contract 1022 researchers and research students. I look forward to further examples of such co-operation. For their part, the research funding bodies should support research in a way which makes the universities' task more manageable.
Under the concordat, the research councils have undertaken to be responsive to requests for higher salaries for more experienced staff so long as the science justifies this, and to meet the costs of replacing staff in cases of maternity and long-term sick leave. That is particularly welcome as the lack of funding in this area has long been seen as a disincentive to employ female staff, as a number of noble Lords have commented. I shall return later to that point.
The research funders share a particular interest with the universities in identifying and supporting potential research leaders. The 1993 White Paper suggested that they place a greater emphasis on individual fellowships, and this has been happening. Since 1994, just six months after that 1993 White Paper, the Royal Society has received additional funding to increase the number of fellows in its prestigious university research fellowship scheme. They will soon total some 270 compared with 200 three years ago. The noble Lord, Lord Porter, described that very well.
The research councils have also strengthened their provision, either by increasing fellowship numbers or by ensuring that their schemes now offer an opportunity of secure career progression for the highly talented. As a result, the science budget alone now supports well over 1,000 fellowships. That is significant. But the research funders need to keep this provision under active review alongside other longer-term research support and alternatives to project grant funding. The concordat rightly makes this requirement absolutely explicit.
Of course, there is a range of funders of research in universities. They are not all the same, and universities already cope with the differences between them. Government departments and industry generally purchase research from universities by contract or commission, whereas the research councils support it by grants. That is an important distinction. With commissioned research, the supplier—the university—should ensure that it recovers sufficient funds from the customer to meet its staff management costs. The concordat may encourage universities to do that, even though not formally applying it to commissioned work.
As my noble friend Lady Park wished, I believe that the concordat may also help to clarify thinking among purchasers of research for whom value for money is critical. In some cases a purchaser may only want to purchase a one-off "product". In other cases, it may be in the purchaser's interest to explore the scope for what might be called longer-term or strategic alliances. Rolls-Royce's 12 well-regarded, university technology centres are a good example.
For its part, the Department of Health is currently considering responses to consultation on its First Statement on a Research Capacity Strategy. That was produced in response to a Select Committee report on medical research and addresses head on the question of career structure and development for research personnel, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Winston, wanted, 1023 especially in clinical medicine. After consultation and discussion in the national forum of research funders, the Department of Health will be developing an action plan with members of that forum. Planned action by the Department of Health will also take account of the CVCP's inquiry into clinical academic careers with Sir Rex Richards in the chair.
I am conscious that there is another important debate to follow this one. Therefore, I must apologise if I have not answered all the detailed points that were raised. However, as such specific attention focused on the position of women—as, indeed, was the case with the committee—I should like to say a few words in that respect.
The Government has given additional funding to the Royal Society to launch 16 well-named—as I hope my noble friend will believe—Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships. These are targeted at the immediate postdoctoral stage, when women especially tend to drop out of research. I am pleased to report that 15 of the fellows appointed in the autumn were women. The universities, the research councils, the Wellcome Trust and other bodies are now making progress in removing age and other barriers which prevent women continuing in research, or returning to it while retaining family responsibilities.
The research councils are supporting "returner" fellowships under the auspices of the Daphne Jackson Trust, to which reference was also made. I, too, acknowledge the EPSRC's decision to pilot part-time Ph.Ds to benefit women. I am pleased that the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council has launched a project to identify and encourage best employment practice. I should point out to the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, that the results should be relevant not only to Scottish universities but also to those on this side of the Border. The Office of Science and Technology's Development Unit on women in science, engineering and technology will be reviewing just what progress is made by the research and funding councils.
I should like to conclude by saying that we do indeed welcome the committee's report. University employers, research funders and the Government are working along the lines of the committee's recommendations. However, I acknowledge that there is still much to be done. I very much trust that the concordat is the proper basis on which to take forward those recommendations. I hope that I have given some indication of the manner in which we believe it can be achieved. The report and the further advice given in the debate will be of considerable help both to the Government and others in judging how successfully the outstanding challenges are to be tackled.
§ 2.40 p.m.
§ Lord Dainton
My Lords, I, too, am conscious of the fact that there is an important debate to follow. I shall not take up the time of the House by traversing all the contributions which have been made by noble Lords and noble Baronesses. I am grateful that so many people have taken part in the debate who are not members of the committee. That clearly shows there is a deep concern with the affairs of the universities and with the 1024 affairs of science in universities and with this particular phenomenon of the rapid uncontrolled growth of contract research in universities.
I very much appreciated what the Government said about the concordat, but if I have one criticism—and it is an important one—of the Government's response it is a simple one; namely, that the concentration of the Government has been entirely upon mechanisms and the concordat. Of course we all wish that well; we are very much behind it—by "we" I mean the committee—and we have made that absolutely clear. But we also discussed today the causes of this particular phenomenon. I must remind the House that the causes of the phenomenon lie in the serious underfunding of the universities which causes them to seek money from whatever sources they can get it. One of the ways in which they can get it in significant quantities is through research activities. That has a distorting effect on the way in which research should develop. That is not the only matter which is of concern to us.
Whilst this research has been going on, the Government have carefully withdrawn from the universities—and are in the process of increasing that procedure—funds which are required for equipment and furniture, so that the infrastructure on which this research is predicated is decaying. I do not see any way in which that can be remedied by the happenstance of getting contracts from industry or Europe or wherever, for it is well known that those infrastructure costs are not readily entered into as charges on any contract of which we know. I hope that the Government in their reconsideration of these matters—while I applaud all that they do to support the concordat—will give serious consideration to those features of our university life which are rendering the universities less capable of undertaking research in the future.
Unless we attend to that, I am afraid there will continue to be a steady decline to a point at which we shall no longer be able to support the quality of research we have been able to support in the past. Already there are signs of that in the way in which Britain has slipped in citation indices in science. It has slipped as regards the way in which our work is recorded and referred to.
I hope that the Government can find it in their heart to provide the small amount of money that is necessary in much the same way as they have felt able to help the Royal Society to establish the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships. It is small beer but it is of tremendous importance for the health of science, engineering, and technology, both at the basic level and at all the applied levels of industry, to which so much eloquent reference has been made in this debate. I commend the report to your Lordships.
On Question, Motion agreed to.