Why the Use of Fixed-Term Contracts in Research?

Written by Dr Kathy Barrett, University Lead for Research Staff Development, CRSD

According to your responses to the Careers in Research Online Survey in March 2017 92.3% of you are employed by King’s on fixed-term contracts (FTCs), with 61.4% of you holding that contract for between 1 and 3 years.  Most UK universities employ their research staff on FTCs, with an average figure across the UK of 72% employed in this way.

What are the reasons for taking this approach?  King’s policy, and also of most UK universities, is that fixed-term contracts should only be used when there are legitimate reasons for doing so.  Legitimate reasons include when the project expires after a specific term.  As research is typically funded in fixed-term periods and often the grant is not renewed, this will mean that the project will be finite.  It stands to reason then that the contract held by the person carrying out the project will also expire, leading to redundancy regardless of whether it is fixed-term or open.

FTCs do not justify, according to King’s policy, less favourable treatment in comparison to staff on open contracts, so you get the same annual leave, parental leave, sick leave and training development opportunities as your colleagues.  You also get time off towards the end to look for another job, which your colleagues on open contracts would not have.  That sounds like a perk, so what then is negative about the FTC?  If you’re applying for a loan, you might find the finite nature of your contract will detract from your credit-worthiness in the eyes of the lender.  This can be an issue if you want to get a mortgage.

After four years on a fixed-term contract you are legally entitled to be transferred to an open contract, which will give you the option of getting a mortgage.  The only problem is, if your funding runs out you will still be facing redundancy and not have time to look for that new job.

What then is the answer to this conundrum?  If the funders want to support the best research carried out by the best researchers then running the projects for a fixed term makes sense.  It follows then that making the funding open-ended is probably not the answer.  I was at the BME Early Career Researchers Conference at King’s back in April listening to a talk by Chi Onwura, Labour MP for Newcastle Central, in which she said the Labour Party wanted to abolish FTCs for researchers.  When I asked her afterwards how they are planning to do this she asked me for ideas.  Clearly this question also vexes the minds of more influential people than me.  If you have any ideas then feel free to send them to her, and also to me!

King’s guidance on FTCs can be found here.

Writing a Successful Grant Application

Written by Dr Chris Bird, St Thomas & Waterloo Campus Research Development Manager

A key feature of forging a successful career in academia is to secure grant funding for your research. Although there are many different styles and funder requirements there are a few important things to keep in mind. Whilst many ‘top tips’ focus on the obvious….’read the instructions, allow plenty of time, read example applications, talk to experienced people’ etc, etc…..here are a few things which are all too often overlooked.

  1. Know your funder – You should start from the basis of what is the funder looking for? Often people start with a fully developed proposal and then try and find a funder to fit. The key to success is to develop your proposal with the funder and funding scheme at the forefront of your mind.
  2. Put yourself in the shoes of the reviewer – It can be useful to imagine your worst nightmare of a reviewer and then try to pre-empt any criticisms they might have. Often researchers forget to explain why the research is important, or include key details or explanations because they think these are obvious – what might be obvious to you might not be obvious to reviewers. Peer review is also a very useful way of weeding out anything obvious you may have overlooked.
  3. Detail! – Explaining the background to the problem is clearly important and you should try to summarise why the problem is important and what you have done so far (include some preliminary data!) but given most funders will have a word limit on the proposal, you should make sure you leave enough space to sufficiently describe what you will do and how you will do it. You need to provide enough detail on what you are actually asking for funding to do and how you will do it. Don’t forget to explain your methods, analysis and include details like power calculations!
  4. Make sure your objectives align with your workplan – It’s all about making it easy for a reviewer to understand what you are doing, why you are doing it and where it will get you. Make sure that you’ve got a really clear question and narrative about the question and also make sure your research plan fits the questions you’re asking. Don’t forget to include those important milestones and deliverables so that it’s obvious how each aspect of your research will move you towards your goal. Avoid just measuring lots of things without a clear plan of why (otherwise it will be obvious to a reviewer you are just on a fishing trip).
  5. Make sure you have the right team – The people involved are just as important as the project you’re proposing. Provide evidence that others you may be working with are capable of delivering the work. If you don’t have a good track record, sometimes the best thing is to collaborate with people that do. Even if you can’t include co-investigators (for example if you are applying for a fellowship) make sure you have the right people to mentor and advise you – often they can be at another institution or may provide some expertise not available ‘in house’.

And of course lastly…don’t forget to read the instructions, allow plenty of time, read example applications and talk to experienced people as well – but I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that!

Assessing the Changing Research and Innovation Landscape

Written by Daniel Cremin, Head of External Affairs & Government Relations, King’s College London

Game-changing developments from Whitehall can be like buses – you can often wait for years, and then 3 or 4 tend to turn up in very close proximity.

Recent months have heralded significant developments with long-term implications for King’s and the wider UK science and research landscape.

After several months, in the immediate post-Brexit period, of making positive but non-committal noises about the importance of science and innovation, Theresa May’s reformulated Government opted to decisively put its money where its mouth is at the Autumn Statement in December 2016.

To the surprise of many in the research world, who had expected a more modest increase in investment, the Government revealed that science and research would be a cornerstone feature of its revitalised industrial strategy. This made it one of the biggest winners from its decision to step back from the strictures of austerity and borrow more to drive economic development more widely across the UK.

The additional funding, awarded as part of a broader National Productivity Fund that will also support additional investment in infrastructure projects and skills development, will deliver an extra £4.7 Billion for research across the period of 2016-17 to 2020-21. The specific funding calls have not been announced but it is expected that they will cover research in all disciplines.

An increase in this level hasn’t been seen in the UK since the 1980s and is truly exciting as it brings with it enormous potential to enrich the research endeavour through the delivery of new technologies and laboratories, as well as supporting initiatives to bolster the impact and global connectivity of the research community.

The details of how the additional funding will be allocated won’t emerge until after the Budget in March, but present intelligence indicates that a significant amount of the funding will be directed through the tradition dual funding streams of the Research Councils and the REF-linked QR block grant institutional allocations. Place is likely to feature more acutely in the decision-making process in future.

As part of the Autumn Statement the Government indicated that some of the additional funding would be specifically targeted at helping to catalyse university-industry collaboration to advance the UK’s strengths in relation to both existing and nascent technologies which offer high-growth potential.

The Government has swiftly followed up with the publication of the Industrial Strategy Green Paper in mid-January, and an accompanying consultation exercise on a proposed Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, to be managed by UK Research and Innovation.

In addition to 8 core challenge areas which largely map to, but slightly expand thematically on, the Government’s already established 8 Great Technologies framework, Innovate UK and the Research Councils are using the consultation to seek views on two additional potential thematic areas, shown beneath the green line in the diagram below.

The other big development, with potentially long-term implications, was the announcement on 2nd February that the Government’s present Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir Mark Walport, will become the first Chief Executive of UK Research & Innovation (UKRI). He will establish the organisation in shadow form across 2017, with the first set of HEFCE and Research Council staff expected to transfer by summer, before UKRI becomes fully operational in April 2018.

This is a significant appointment as Sir Mark, a former Chief Executive of Wellcome Trust, has long advocated that a greater share of the science and research budget should be concentrated on supporting major national and international scientific hubs and infrastructure initiatives.

Although he is an advocate of universities playing a key role in the driving excellence in both pure and applied research, there is the potential that his stewardship of UKRI – which will without doubt be a powerful super-agency – could lead to some notable changes in the way the Research Councils allocate funding for major awards, fellowships and doctoral training in the next few years.

He is also a strong advocate of bolstering investment in smart cities technologies as well as research and development activity in relation to sustainable urbanisation and low carbon energy storage, so these could well be significant beneficiaries over time as a result of his tenure. You may find “Technology and Innovation Futures”, a report issued by the Government Office for Science Sir Mark oversees an interesting read.

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