Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Giving Voice to Researchers

Vitae Conference Pack: bewildering
I last went to a Vitae Conference in 2014. In the three short years that have followed the research landscape has shifted completely. Of course, we have had the EU Referendum with the jittery uncertainty that's resulted, but there's also been the REF2014 results, the first outcomes of H2020, the Higher Education White Paper, the Nurse Review, the Stern Review, and the first announcements about REF2021. In those 36 months the research ship of state has tilted and we're waiting to see where all deckchairs have ended up.

Although the plenary was somewhat muted - I got the feeling that there was a nervousness hanging over the panel, and no one wanting to show their full hand to anyone - #vitae17 has been a chance for all those who support researchers to take stock, to assess what's worked, and to think about how best to go forward.

A Decade of Development

The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers is due to reach it's tenth birthday next year. Vitae are will launch a review on it shortly, with a consultation running to the end of the year. David Bogle of UCL will be leading this, and Julia Buckingham, the VC and President of Brunel, gave some thoughts on possible themes that might inform this review.

The sense I got from this was that the decade-old Concordat had changed the way that researchers were treated and supported, and that the time was now right to move on from this and consider how to empower them further.

Thus, Buckingham's themes included the need to tailor 'talent development' to the needs of the individual, to be honest and objective, and to be more joined up in the options that are presented to them. Further, there should be some thought about who 'owns' this responsibility: is it the institution, the head of school, the principal investigators, or the individual researchers themselves?

To help inform the discussion Robin Mellors-Bourne, the self-styled 'number cruncher' for Vitae with the wonderfully MI6 job title of 'Director of Research and Intelligence,' offered the results of successive Careers in Research Online Surveys (CROS) and Principal Investigators and Researcher Leaders Surveys (PIRLS).

I'm not sure if it's intentional, but whenever he talked of Cross and Pearls, it brought to mind a mix of knitting and 1970s cinema advertising. The results, set out in Five Steps Forward, suggest:

  • That there have been huge improvements in the professionalisation of recruitment and selection, but much slower progress in offering researchers full time permanent contracts. 72% of researchers are on fixed term contracts, and a fifth of full time contracts are 12 months or shorter. 
  • That researchers now feel far more recognised and valued. 72% of them are now receiving appraisals, up from 50% a decade ago, and 80-90% of researcher leaders are also being appraised. 
  • However, training in broader issues (such as equality and diversity, ethical research, teaching and public engagement) is more patchy. Although there's been a considerable rise in generic induction programmes, advice in career management has only been received by 20% of respondents. 
  • In terms of realistic aspirations, the picture is less positive. 80% still aspire to a career in academia, despite the lack of opportunities, and 60% think they'll achieve it. This chimes in with the lack of career management advice. 

Speaking up for Themselves

Whilst Vitae has acted as a voice for the researcher development sector, there has been relatively little self-advocacy by the researchers. In some ways this is unsurprising: for those moving from short term contract to short term contract, with their eyes on getting that permanent academic position, many probably don't self-identify as a temporary researcher - or self-identify for long enough to form advocacy groups.

However, it has never been more important, and advocacy groups have started during the lifetime of the Concordat. One such is the UK Research Staff Association, and Dr Emma Compton-Daw (Strathclyde) and Dr Louise Stephen (CRUK) explained its work, particularly in relation to the REF2021 consultation. Established in 2010, the Association sets out 'to empower staff to take control of their career, and contribute to policy.'

It's laudable and necessary, but I get the sense of not huge buy in. For instance, for the REF2021 consultation, only 53 of its members had responded. Nevertheless their points were important, and included:

  • Eligibility: whilst it's good to include all research active staff, how will these be defined? And how will it impact on job security? There's a danger of manipulating full time contracts to influence the researcher to output ratio. Moreover, will job security be linked to outputs, with the possibility of being moved to non-research contracts?
  • Collaboration with those outside of academia: this was strongly supported, although there was some concern that it may disadvantage basic research;
  • Environment: researchers were generally in favour of more structured templates and the wider use of metrics, but expressed concern about equality and diversity, career development support, career progression and staff representation, amongst other issues. 
  • Non-Portability of Outputs: here researchers expressed most concern. There was a lack of incentive for institutions to offer permanent contracts, and there would still be game playing, with academics holding back from publishing before moving university. 

Valid concerns, and with added weight given the nature of UKRSA. However, whilst I couldn't find a clear indication of how many postdoctoral researchers there were in the UK, the fact that only 53 responded suggests a lack of identification with the role or the body - or, perhaps, a lack of awareness of it.

So, ten years on, there's much to be positive about, but clearly a long way still to go. A decade from now - or even in three years time, when I might next be staring at the carpets and down the long corridors of the Birmingham Metropole - I hope that researchers are fully valued and recognised for providing the long term sustainability of the research sector, and as such have the strong, influential voice that they deserve.

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