Monday, September 29, 2008

Guest Post: The Concordat - why should researchers care?

This is a guest post by someone who wishes to remain known as "Concordat Boy":

Concordat When the new Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers was launched back in June it didn't make the front pages. Indeed many of those who it is supposed to serve have never even heard of it. Yet this obscure piece of policy pulled together by funders and employers has the possibility of making a big impact on the lives of researchers. Unfortunately, if ignored, it could also make almost no difference - so why should you care and what should you do?

Post-doctoral researchers are the unsung heroes of the academic world. Underpaid, under-appreciated and given little security they are responsible for the delivery of the research outputs that (at least potentially) transform science and ultimately the world. Excessive use of fixed-term contracts, the lack of a career structure and the fact that institutions often all but ignore research staff has made the profession unattractive to many. Yet, while the plight of the contract researcher has frequently been commented on, nobody has convincingly managed to change the situation.

However, we are currently in a moment where it is at least possible that the life of the postdoc is about to change for the better. Changes in the legal situation are likely to mean that universities are unable to employ so many people on fixed-term contracts. The academic union the UCU has realised this and gone on a drive to recruit and represent research staff. Alongside this the government has put a significant amount of money into developing the skills and careers of post-docs through the "Roberts" payments. Meanwhile on the other side of town, Brussels is talking about the European Research Area and putting in place a Charter and Code to improve the conditions of the staff who work within it.

Into this changing landscape comes the Concordat. Signed and endorsed by almost everyone who matters in HE it is a wish list of how research staff should be treated, offering: stability of employment; access to training; involvement in decision making and increased transparency and flexibility in employment. The Concordat was delivered on the back of a lot of good will and promises a lot. However, unless postdocs themselves start to care about it, it is likely to amount to a lot of warm words and not much else. It is all too easy for senior managers to report that everything is rosy in the garden when nothing much has changed.

So make sure you've read the Concordat and try and ask some difficult questions on the back of it. What is your institution doing about your contract, about providing you with training, perhaps even more importantly with providing your PI with some training, and about involving you in the decisions that affect you? Ask your PI, your HR department, the UCU and anyone else who you can bend the ear of. If all of the postdocs in the country made a little bit of trouble it is likely that universities would have to finally put their money where their mouth is and make sure the Concordat happen.

Well you've got to put your faith in something...