Serial Postdoc Killer?

Epidemiological statistician Richard A'Brook has worked at the University of Dundee, U.K., for over a decade. It might sound like he has a steady job, but A'Brook is himself a statistic. He is employed on fixed-term contracts: "four main ones," over the last 13 years, with fillers on money "dredged up from somewhere" by the head of his department.

An ever-growing number of the dedicated researchers who get the work done--postdocs, contract research staff (CRS), call them what you will--are getting on in years, if not their careers. According to the Association of University Teachers ( AUT), the proportion of research-only fixed-term contract staff in the United Kingdom aged 30 or more rose from 53% in 1995 to 63% in 2001. No longer fresh-faced trainees, these scientists continue to live with uncertainty and low status.

But thanks to a European Commission (EC) directive gradually being transposed into the legislative frameworks of the 15 Member States--including the United Kingdom earlier this month--the situation of A'Brook and his CRS peers could be about to change. The Directive on Fixed-Term Work says "in a nutshell" that "there should be no discrimination against people who are on fixed-term contracts simply because they are on fixed-term contracts," explains Malcolm Keight of AUT. It also says that either through legislation or collective bargaining, all E.U. countries must "prevent the abuse of fixed-term contracts through their continuous use."

Precisely how each Member State implements this rule is up to that country's legislature, explains EC's Andrew Fielding. However, according to Keight, the just-enacted legal position in the United Kingdom is that "where someone is employed for more than 4 years on a series of fixed-term contracts, employment [at that institution] beyond 4 years is assumed to be permanent" unless the employer offers "objective justifications" for the continued use of fixed-term contracts.

Just what those "objective justifications" can be is a decidedly vexed question that has yet to be properly settled. The Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES), which represents both employers and unions, has produced guidelines on when it is appropriate to use fixed-term contracts, guidelines that A'Brook is pleased to note "are a lot more restrictive than the [U.K. government's] regulations." But the JNCHES guidelines are not binding, and individual universities may decide whether to adopt them. Ultimately, then, the only way that the scope of the legislation can be defined is if individual CRS take their employers to an industrial tribunal. That might not happen for some time, however: The 4-year rule is not retrospective, so only time served since 10 July 2002 counts.

Meanwhile, the thinking at one British university is "let's just get on with it rather than wait for others to force us." So says David Briggs, director of human resources at Robert Gordon University ( RGU) in Aberdeen. In August this year, RGU moved its entire CRS onto the same open-ended contracts as the rest of its academic staff. Now known as Academic Research Staff, RGU researchers enjoy a package of measures that goes beyond the length of their contract and is all about "bringing them into the mainstream" of university life, says Briggs. However, he is at pains to point out that not all universities would find it as easy to adopt the RGU approach: The number of dedicated research staff at RGU is small--just 60 to 80 people--and research income comes from a more diverse range of sources than at the average large, research-intensive institution, where the risks of such a strategy "would be much higher."

Job stability, however, is not the same as career progression. In fact, Niall Dillon, a group leader at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre in London, worries that the EC directive could make it more difficult to bring in the Europe-wide reforms that he thinks are needed to help young researchers achieve early independence. Chief among these is a tenure-track system that would give young researchers a fixed period of about 6 years to prove themselves as independent group leaders. Although it is clear, Dillon says, that there is "a need to protect postdocs from becoming stuck in a holding pattern," he worries that placing strict limits on the length of time that people can be employed on fixed-term contracts will introduce a new obstacle to creating a tenure system in Europe. At the very time when France is trying to change its "job for life" system and introduce a postdoc model, it appears that "the whole of Europe is going to move in the other direction," Dillon points out. Although he acknowledges that so early after the introduction of the new legislation it is "very unclear how this will work," Dillon is concerned that "scientific excellence," which he says should be the number one criterion for funding and employment, could be a casualty.

Many others, however, think that the new regulations will cause barely a ripple. At the institutes run by Cancer Research UK ( CRUK), the norm will continue to be that postdoctoral researchers will be employed on fixed-term contracts of 3, 4, or 5 years, says Ken Dornford of the HR department. (Single contracts of any duration are permitted under the regulations--it is only where there is a contract renewal that the 4-year rule kicks in.) It's part of CRUK's philosophy to bring in new blood regularly and ensure that postdocs move on for their own career development, he explains. There will be a greater effort to "manage expectations," mainly through a more formalised appraisal process, to ensure that fixed-term staff are aware of the need to look elsewhere for their next step--and to protect CRUK if it is faced with claims of unfair dismissal.

"This is really just enshrining in legislation good employment practice," states a spokesperson for the University of Cambridge, one of the United Kingdom's biggest employers of CRS. If people are employed on grant funding, "clearly ... they can only be employed for a limited period," he suggests, foreseeing no major change in the pattern of research staff employment at the university. However, A'Brook notes that the JNCHES document implies that any contract renewal is "automatic evidence of long-term stability." Thus, pleading soft money as an objective justification will be difficult to sustain at an industrial tribunal, he believes.

Elsewhere in Europe

Although the introduction of the Directive on Fixed-Term Work has caused a considerable stir among British academics, it seems to have been barely noticed elsewhere in Europe. Perhaps this is because, unlike the United Kingdom, nearly all other European countries already have regulations that protect workers on fixed-term contracts. Or maybe it is because, as in Italy, the new rules simply don't apply to most young scientists. Guido Germano, one of the founding members of the Italian doctoral students' association, is cynical. Postdoctoral researchers in his home country (he's currently working in Germany) get no help from the directive, he says, because they are not considered workers. They are paid from training grants, either a borsa di studio (a scholarship identical to those that pay undergraduate and graduate students) or an assegno di ricerca, "a new kind of payment introduced a couple of years ago, that although being a bit better than a borsa di studio as far as partial social benefits are concerned still is not a proper fixed-term contract," he says.

So do contract researchers really have all that much to celebrate? As far as A'Brook is concerned, "the right to equal treatment is actually the more significant development." Although Dundee has "historically been pretty good"--CRS there have essentially the same entitlements as other academics--other universities should see an "immediate levelling up," he believes. In terms of open-ended contracts, the regulations are "not actually going to make all that much difference," he says, because if funding really does run out, the researcher can still be made redundant.

Keight, however, begs to differ. He says that under the JNCHES guidelines it can no longer be assumed that a particular grant equates to a specific employee. "If a research grant comes to an end, someone supported on that grant is not the only candidate for redundancy," he suggests. Rather, the university should look at all its employees to decide who should be let go if it really needs to save money, while trying to redeploy the researcher if possible. And Alan Williams, president of Manchester AUT, who himself spent a dozen years on fixed-term contracts before securing an open-ended appointment, is hopeful that the regulations and guidelines will "provide a lever to change this existing 'casualisation culture' that accepts without question that fixed-term funding should virtually automatically mean fixed-term contracts."

Higher education, too, might benefit from more stable postdoc employment patterns. Although RGU's Briggs is generally in favour of the "regular churn" of researchers through the system, "we're churning too much" at the moment, he thinks. Dirk van der Krogt, chair of the Swedish National Union of Ph.D. students, agrees. "Many Ph.D. students would very much like to continue within academia, but the prospect of working on short, fixed-term contracts for a period of 10 or 15 years is too unattractive," causing many to leave, he says. "Tightening the labour laws ... would improve the effectiveness of the labour force within academia." One way this might happen is by improving morale. "Being on a fixed-term contract really did make me feel temporary and not a proper member of staff," says Williams.

So, the EC directive is potentially good for higher education in general and for researchers already in the system in particular. But what about the next generation? If today's researchers are not forced out of academia--either because their contracts have come to an end or they can no longer live with the uncertainty of Williams's casualisation culture--won't that mean that there will be too few opportunities for newly minted Ph.D.s to get a foot in the door? "That doesn't need to be the case," says Briggs. Some researchers will still choose to move on. And if universities work to make "other avenues" available to research staff, such as creating opportunities for them to acquire higher education teaching qualifications, they can "reduce the risk" of stagnation, he suggests. Williams agrees: "Staff leave anyway, even if they're on permanent contracts." Industry is a case in point: Companies are continually recruiting scientists despite the fact that they typically hire on open-ended positions.

However, if this new legislation is to open the door to a more secure future for the serial postdoc, real change "will depend on local unions or staff representatives actually pushing institutions to implement these things," says A'Brook. And employees as well as employers will have to be flexible. "One option would be that researchers are not attached exclusively to a project" but form a central pool of people within the university with transferable skills, who can be "farmed out on a secondment basis," he suggests--an option that he concedes would work well for a statistician but not necessarily for everyone. Nonetheless, researchers today often have to change tack whenever their latest short-term contract comes to an end. "I don't see why they shouldn't be prepared to accept that as part of a secure employment rather than a necessity arising from insecure employment," A'Brook concludes.

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