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What does 2012 hold for research careers?

In July 2008, the UK Grad programme was relaunched as Vitae, an organisation aiming to champion researchers and support their career development. As its contract with Research Councils UK comes to an end, chairwoman Janet Metcalfe tells Miriam Frankel about Vitae’s plans for 2012.

It was announced in April that you would lose your funding from Research Councils UK. You told us this would not make you scale down your work. What do your funding arrangements look like now?

It wasn’t announced that we would lose our funding, it was announced that the current contract finished at the end of 2012, which is a very different statement. All I can say to you is that we are in ongoing conversation with the research councils about post-2012.

Are you focusing on particular themes at the moment?

We’re doing a focus on leadership. Leadership is such an important topic. It’s certainly one that the researchers are interested in. One of the things we wanted to do behind this focus is to show researchers that everybody can show leadership qualities. You don’t actually need to be in a leadership position. It’s about how you use your leadership qualities in everything you do. Very few researchers have opportunity to develop leadership skills before they’re in a management position.

Will you publish a report?

The focus on leadership is targeted at research staff and postgraduate researchers. So it’s how we get those individuals thinking about their leadership skills. We’re also launching a consultation on a leadership lens on the RDF, which draws out the attributes and skills relating to leadership. We have a whole set of materials relating to leadership. Our Leadership in Action programme is available as a set of resources for institutions to run. We will also have a leadership podcast and Leadership in Action events.

There was recently a roundtable discussion on research careers, hosted by David Willetts and the Royal Society. Were you there?

No, but Rick Rylance from RCUK was there on behalf of the research councils. The Concordat Strategy Group also submitted a paper to the minister in advance of that meeting and in response to the Science is Vital report. The paper acknowledges that there are still challenges around research careers, but we felt it was important to recognise the amount of progress that has been made over the last five years in terms of the implementation of the concordat principles.

The discussion included the pyramid structure of research careers and the difficulty in getting permanent positions in academia. So either you create new positions or you help people explore other options and get our earlier. Where do you stand on that?

I don’t think any of those are necessarily good solutions. There is more that needs to be done in terms of supporting researchers. It seems like such a blunt instrument to “help people get out early”. I think what we need to do is to make researchers more aware of the options that are available, their capabilities and whether those match their career expectations. It’s about them being informed and empowered to make those decisions for themselves. Individuals have to realise they have an obligation to keep as many options open as possible and to look at their own competencies.

Also, I don’t think we should make any judgements about everybody aspiring to academic positions. We have published a report called “What do researchers want to do” and the evidence is that they’re not all looking for academic positions. Most of them don’t come and do a PhD because of career aspiration: they do it because of their interest in the subject.

Are you saying that the problem is that researchers don’t take enough responsibility for their careers—not that there’s anything wrong with the actual structure?

Academia is always going to be a competitive environment. But if you look at the numbers at each level in the sort of pyramid, it’s not that extreme compared to other employment sectors. What we don’t know is the statistical chance of somebody who is in a research staff position becoming an academic, if that’s what they want: we don’t have sufficient data to see the progression level. And that’s one of the things we are trying to look at, whether we can fill in this picture so that we can give better info in terms of the UK academic base. It’s also about what individual researchers can do for themselves to maximise their opportunities to achieve their own career ambitions.

And what about short-term contracts and low pay of early-career researchers?

The majority of research staff are on short-term contracts. The question is about their security of employment, rather than what contract they’re on. And by the very nature by which academic research is funded, it is challenging to provide security of employment for people employed on a project basis. However, if you look at data from the Higher Education Statistics Authority on salaries, there’s been a significant increase in the salary level of contract researchers.

What do you think about the Science is Vital campaign and the fact that they were represented at Willetts’ meeting?

I think they’ve done a very good job of raising the profile of the issues for research staff. David Willetts is clearly interested in the issue. We’ve spoken to him about how can we make sure that we are achieving the concordat principles as well as we can.

At Vitae’s annual conference it was announced that you’ll trial your researcher development framework in Europe and the US. How’s that going?

The European trial is being funded by the European Science Foundation. It’s being conducted in six countries: France, Germany, Italy, Luxemburg, Estonia and Norway. We’re almost at the end of the focus groups, with one more to go. We’ve had a really good response in terms of both the content of the Vitae Researcher Development Framework and it being applicable in other research systems. The focus groups have included researchers with different levels of experience, from first-year doctoral candidates to professors. And we’ve done it across disciplines. So we’ve got a good, diagonal cut.

We’ve also done a trial in the US and the initial result is reinforcing the messages we’ve got from the European trial. I think there’s a huge potential in how the RDF can help mobility.