CAMBRIDGE--Late last month, concerned academic researchers met with representatives of funding bodies and university staff development offices to discuss the situation of university contract research staff (CRS). The Association of Women in Science and Engineering (AWiSE) called the meeting to discuss "on the ground" progress that had been made in the 7 months following the report of the Research Careers Initiative committee. The committee had originally been charged with implementing improvements in the terms and conditions of employment of CRS as noted in a university-government agreement known as the Concordat. (For a full briefing on CRS and the Concordat see Next Wave's feature on the subject.)

Although the problems of "casual employment" affect both genders of researchers, Joan Mason, chair of AWiSE, explained that her organization has a particular interest in CRS. She discussed recent figures which reveal that nearly two-thirds of CRS are women and explained how women are particularly vulnerable to discrimination when they take maternity leave while employed on a fixed-term contract.

The results of the meeting did not present an optimistic future for CRS, despite the Concordat's intent. Instead, the head of human resources at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Bob Price, warned that researchers should "not put too much weight on the Concordat. It is not an elixir that will solve all our problems." On behalf of various research funders present, however, he did agreed that the Concordat set out achievable goals, including the provision of career guidance, proper training, and equal terms and conditions.

David Clark, director of engineering and science at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, further challenged scientists present at the meeting. With an estimated 20% of CRS eventually able to secure faculty positions, he claimed that rather than "worshipping at the altar of the Concordat," scientists needed to be more strategic with their career and "broaden their career horizons to include nonacademic positions. He went on to say that he felt it was a "national disgrace" that U.K. academia was lacking a "way of catalyzing the flow of some of the most talented people in the nation out into the wider workforce."

The message from university staff development officers was no more encouraging. Meeting attendees were told about a number of initiatives to help CRS in place at Cambridge, Oxford, and University College, but Judith Secker of Oxford University admitted that many researchers are aware of these schemes "more through their breech than their observance." She also admitted that she was aware that best practice "does not always happen on the ground."

Finally, speaking on behalf of many CRS, astronomer Elizabeth Griffin began her talk by saying, "I don't really need to make a speech; my graying hair, my shabby clothes, and my general disillusionment, dissatisfaction, and frustration with life speak for themselves." She claimed the treadmill of short-term contracts was a career "cull de sac," resulting in departments that were willing to take advantage of the work done by CRS but "cared not a whit" about CRS career development. Griffin added that the Concordat accepted the "two-tier system, where people with tenured posts are considered better than those without," and that more needed to be done to "break down that discrimination."

To do just that, AWiSE announced at the meeting that they were setting up a task force to consider the needs of CRS and develop feasible recommendations for change in academia. Anyone interested in contributing should contact Norma Bubier at 01865 742673 or by e-mail at nbubier@compuserve.com.