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Funding councils throw Vitae £3m lifeline

But careers body still loses more than half its core funding

Vitae, the embattled UK organisation responsible for professionalising research has been given two years of “transition funding” from Research Councils UK and the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The news on 30 May follows an announcement in April 2011 that Vitae’s existing contract would not be renewed beyond December 2012.

Vitae will now receive between £2.5 million and £3m until March 2015, its director Ellen Pearce told Research Fortnight. The organisation, however, will still need to fund itself after 2015, and its revised funding council income corresponds to less than £1.5m per year compared with £3m a year since its inception in 2008. Among the programmes that will lose core funding is a graduate training programme called GRADschools, which offers three-day training courses for postgraduate researchers to develop transferable skills such as communicating clearly. “There’ll be much less work around doctoral researchers so some of the courses will cease or will need to be on a cost-recovery model,” says Pearce.

Still, Pearce says she is pleased with the outcome of negotiations with the two funders, which she revealed have been ongoing since September 2011. Vitae’s new funding—and its longer-term survival—is contingent on implementing its concordat, through which funders and institutions agree to put in place measures supporting career development of research staff, such as limiting the numbers of fixed-term contracts.

Although the official line from Vitae has always been that it would not become another victim of the UK government’s quango cull, others have doubted whether it would survive. “It did seem all doom and gloom for a while,” says Jenny Rohn, founder of science lobby group Science is Vital. “The last time I spoke to people at Vitae they were feeling that it might be coming to an end so I’m really pleased because I think we can all agree that they’re doing a good thing and it’s necessary to have them.”

However, Rohn adds that Vitae could do with a “little bit of savvy social media” to raise its profile. With the right campaigning, she says, the organisation should be able to flourish as a membership group, offering the Campaign for Science and Engineering as a good model. Rohn is not alone in raising concerns about Vitae’s relatively low profile. Vitae’s own 2011 Careers in Research Online Survey showed that 50 per cent of the 5,585 respondents had never heard of Vitae. Jane Thompson, national industrial relations official at the University and College Union, told Research Fortnight that the low profile is indeed an issue. However, she stresses, that awareness among researchers has increased considerably.

The UCU, says Thompson, is positive about Vitae but disappointed with the meagre funding settlement. “In terms of supporting research staff it’s a…longer-term strategy and our concern is that institutions will see that as something desirable but not essential,” she says. “If Vitae gets reduced to being just another body offering consultancy training, then we’ve lost the one single body that was actually highlighting and promoting research professionalism in the UK.”

David Sweeney, director of research, innovation and skills at HEFCE, is less worried about Vitae’s visibility and more concerned that it can offer a service that universities will pay for, which will be key to its future.

“Universities pay into lots of stuff. They don’t have to pay into the Higher Education Academy, but most of them do. If, in the end, universities are not willing to pay for something then we all have to recognise that,” he argues. “I draw attention to [the] Research Information Network. We stopped funding that as an organisation, however we are still buying things from it…some jolly interesting stuff. It would be my expectation that Vitae would offer us things we might find attractive.”