Written by Dr Kennedy Nkhoma, Research Fellow, Cicely Saunders Institute of Palliative Care, Policy & Rehabilitation
I attended a two day National Postdoc meeting organised by the Postdocs of Cambridge Society at the University of Cambridge. The main objectives were to:
- Input into the review of the Concordat document
- Discuss the impact of postdoc researcher’s contribution to the REF
- Discuss with employers, funders and policy makers on postdoc experiences related to the concordat and REF.
On the first day a presentation was delivered by Dr Katie Wheat, the Higher Education Senior Manager at Vitae. The purpose of this workshop was to provide a cross-sector input into the review of the Concordat, a central policy document for higher education in the UK, currently undergoing a review process coordinated by Research Councils UK from the perspective of postdocs. She outlined the seven principles in the Concordat: (1) recruitment, selection and retention (2) recognition and value (3) equipping and supporting researchers in a diverse mobile, global research environment, (4) personal and career development (5) researchers responsibility (6) diversity and equality (7) implementation and review. We were then divided into seven groups and each group discussed one principle. Each group discussed their experiences, ideas for development, adaptation and revision, and ideas for evaluation.
The following themes came out of group discussions and presentations:
- The Concordat is not visible to researchers, most participants felt they only heard about the document when this meeting was called for.
- There is a problem with the structure of the principles, for instance Principles 3 and 4 are similar, they can be combined to be one principle, however representation of researchers under principle 4 is very important and should be its own principle.
- Mentorship: it is important for researchers to find a mentor who is not their line manager and they should also mentor others.
- Career development for Principal Investigator (PI): The need for PIs to attend training on how to manage postdoc researchers.
- Research staff associations to be encouraged and involved in decision making.
- Financial commitment of funders and employers on career development: for instance principle 5 does not address funders and employers, it only addresses researchers who are not signatories of the Concordat.
On day two we discussed the impact of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) on Postdocs. Three main areas were discussed:
- Eligibility: There are plans to change the eligibility criteria to include any researchers with ‘a measure of independence’. There is little understanding of if postdocs are part of the eligibility process and who is included. Postdocs are not fully involved in the process of REF development. There is a need for a course/funded training to have a better understanding of the REF and how they may be affected.
- Collaborate – Collaboration needs an experienced researcher such as a PI since postdoc researchers have limited experience. However PIs have to provide an environment for postdocs to be involved in the process in order to gain experience.
- Portability vs non-portability: The current policy recommends non-portability which would mean that papers published by an individual in one institution stay with that institution when research staff leave in an effort to prevent the gaming previously seen by institutions buying up outputs. The main take home message is perhaps double weighting of inputs, so that previously unreferenced individuals can take their outputs with them and the hosting institution also keep ownership. However institutions should try to provide incentives to research staff to retain them in their role.
The last session was a panel discussion with funders from the Wellcome Trust and MRC, employers from Imperial College London, University of Cambridge and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and policy makers from the Royal Society. Issues in relation to the Concordat and REF were presented to the panel for their views.
The panel agreed with the issues raised, in particular emphasising that it is both the researchers’ and employers’ responsibility to make choices and important decisions about their career. Funders strongly recommended participants to demonstrate capacity to manage funding, resources, and staff to be able to win a grant or fellowship.
The next concordat review takes place next year, therefore issues raised by the postdocs will be taken into consideration during the review. Participants agreed that meetings should be held annually and rotated.
It was exciting and rewarding to be involved in reviewing the Concordat which influences my working environment at King’s. It was interesting to learn from other postdocs who share similar experiences and challenges about the uncertainty of career paths, especially in relation to fixed-term contracts. This showed me that we are all in this together.