Let Them Eat Cake!

Do senior scientists truly deserve the kudos they get from their university employers for keeping the research cash rolling in, or are they basking in glory which really belongs to less well-established researchers? A recent survey conducted on behalf of the Wellcome Trust and the six UK Research Councils entitled "Who Applies for Research Funding?" (National Centre for Social Research, January 2001) found that senior academics--professors, readers, heads of department--are more likely to have their research proposals funded than are those at more junior levels: 64% of senior staff had been successful in half or more of the applications they had made, as opposed to less than 50% for other staff. The different success rates in securing grants could simply be due to the greater expertise and experience of established researchers; they have mastered the grant game. But what if the careers of some in established posts were being advanced not solely by their own achievements, but by stealth, using the ideas, inspiration, and perspiration of junior colleagues?

The UK Research Councils (with the exception of the Economic and Social Research Council, ESRC) have regulatory requirements that prevent fixed-term and contract research staff from applying in their own right as principal investigator on a research grant. As a result, any contract researcher with a fantastic research idea has to get an established academic to 'host' the grant application on his or her behalf. The rigidity with which the Councils apply these rules varies. However, "in general, the shorter the contract duration, the more hurdles or blocks there are likely to be for staff seeking to hold grants," observes Christabel Kynch, former chair of the Association of University Teachers' (AUT) Fixed-Term Non-Contract Research Staff Committee.

In addition, there may be institutional impediments to contract staff holding grants. "The level of awareness about the career importance of successful grant applications ... seems to be very low among fixed-term contract staff," says Kynch. "They are marginalised from the main activities of departments and faculties. Such staff may mix mainly with others for whom grant funding is rarely considered, and this, rather than the actual policies of Research Councils, may shape the route taken," she suggests.

So just how many fixed-term and contract research staff are playing the system by channelling grant applications through a senior member of staff? Alan Williams, until recently chair of the AUT's Contract Research Staff Committee, suggests that it is "virtually routine for principal investigators to be merely fronts, permitting contract research staff to continue their research; Research Councils acknowledge this." But putting a precise figure on the proportion of grants 'fronted' in this way is of course impossible: There simply are no 'hard' data, only anecdotal evidence.

Aside from senior academics, who benefits from the current research funding system? Not fixed-term and contract research staff, it would seem. Some take the view that the system has led to the disenfranchisement of contract staff; even recent concessions, such as the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) allowing contract researchers to hold 'co-author' status on grant applications, are thought not to go far enough. "It is wrong to deny contract researchers proper ownership, acknowledgement, and authorship of their work, in order to attempt to maintain a 'flow' of researchers," notes Williams. "It is also wrong to prevent the submission of potentially excellent academic research proposals, simply because they come from researchers on the wrong kind of contract. The mission ... [should] be to fund the best research, not just to fund research from a particular cohort of researchers (i.e., established lecturing staff)."

Others are less sure that allowing grant applications from fixed-term and contract researchers would necessarily benefit the careers of such staff, or improve upon the current grants system. Universities UK have not taken a formal policy position on the issue of contract research staff as grantholders. But Robin Jackson, policy adviser to Universities UK and secretary to the Research Careers Initiative (RCI) Steering Group, notes that most vice chancellors of UK higher education institutions "do not think there is anything unreasonable about limiting applications for grants to those who hold established academic posts, especially where bidding for salaries is concerned." Jackson believes that allowing research grant applications from nonestablished staff "could even intensify the contract employment culture, when the aim of RCI is to support contract research staff better through what should not be an overly extended category of employment." This view implicitly assumes that all contract research staff are trainees, as opposed to having a range of experience comparable to that of staff employed on permanent contracts.

Whatever one's view on this, there is increasing evidence that the current system disadvantages female scientists and engineers. The survey conducted for the Wellcome Trust and Research Councils showed that women were less likely to be eligible to apply for their grants, with the exception of those from the ESRC. For example, 24% of men could apply for grants from the EPSRC; the corresponding figure for women was 14%. This arises in part because of the higher proportion of women employed on a fixed-term contract (44% of women respondents and 33% of male respondents to the survey).

So where do we go from here? At present universities see no reason to employ a greater proportion of their research staff on open-ended contracts--they wish to have their cake and eat it. The Research Councils suggest that it is not their responsibility to dictate to universities how they should employ their own staff. Sitting in the middle are some 40,000 or so fixed-term and contract research staff who, if seeking a permanent lecturing post, have no evidence to confirm their ability to win external funds and manage their own research projects. And all the while reputations are being made as grants flow forth into departmental accounts in the name of 'eligible' investigators. ...

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