Wednesday, March 23, 2011

James McInerney on Employment Control Framework

NUIM scientist James McInerney's comments on this are linked here. Text reproduced below. He is representative of a lot of people running research teams in Ireland that have been blown out of the water by this.

"I run a research group of somewhere between a half dozen and a dozen people. They are mostly post-graduate level students, but usually with a couple of post-doctoral researchers included in the group.

The funding for post-docs has come both from national funding sources - H.E.A. PRTLI, Science Foundation Ireland, etc. - and from international sources such as the EU “Marie Curie” programme for researcher mobility.

For the past decade, I have not had to think whether I should have a larger or smaller research group, what the mix of post-grad and post-doc scientists should be or whether or not this was out of line with anybody’s expectations of me. I focused on doing the science and delivering on the grants that were awarded to my group (these are always competitive awards, with rarely success rates for the applications usually less than one-in-five, sometimes less than 5% chance of success, such is the level to which they are subscribed). Just trying to do the science is not an easy job, I can assure you. However, this is the job I signed up for and so far, thankfully, things have gone fine. You can see some of the results here -

This is a moderately healthy system. Grants are awarded based on the quality of the applicant, the quality of the application and the amount of available funding. In 2010, new national funding was almost non-existent, for instance. In other years it was almost as good as in the UK.

However, the Employment Control Framework (ECF) has really made a mess of it all.

The ECF has now rolled my post-doctoral researchers in with permanent staff members so that they are now “core staff” of the university. This is despite the fact that they are never going to be made permanent. They come to Ireland (most have been from outside Ireland), work here for a few years, bring their new ideas from abroad, bring their experience of different systems of working, bring their enthusiasm, bring their software code and so forth and they carry out research that benefits Ireland and then they leave.

Sometimes they participate in teaching our undergrads and they can bring some very practical skills into the classroom.

However, now that they are being rolled in with the rest of the staff as core staff and now that there is a cap on the numbers of core staff that we can have, all this is going to stop.


In addition to this, we are not replacing the retiring staff (while offering staff a lot of incentives to retire) and so when you combine the cap on numbers with the pressing need to retain an ability to deliver lectures, I am now facing a situation where I will be told I cannot take on post-doctoral researchers.

I might not be able to bring in new blood from outside the country (EU Marie Curie grants are explicitly for people from outside Ireland to locate here).

I might not be able to employ our own PhD graduates.

I won’t be able to produce as much research.

I won’t be able to accept grants from the EU or The Wellcome Trust or their ilk, who offer my university a lot of overheads and also enhance the reputation of our university by awarding grants to us.

I won’t be able to guarantee to a collaborator that I will be able to employ staff if we get a joint award.

The ECF is a blunt instrument. It addresses the issue of reducing the cost of the third level sector, but it is the most cack-handed approach imaginable.

If the government wants the universities to employ fewer staff so that it pays less money, then that is an acceptable thing to want - particularly in a recession. However, surely the better thing to do is to give the universities their block grant and say “manage that in the best way that you can”.

Bill Cullen is the businessman on “The Apprentice”. He runs a car sales organisation. Do you think he would think it was sensible for a bank to loan him money and tell him to reduce costs and then present him with a plan that allowed him to have a sales garage, to have cars but no sales people?

The ECF needs to be abolished and something more sensible replacing it. The financial cost to the exchequer can be the same, but if it is done properly, then we can save a bit of our scientific reputation, our international standing, our attractiveness as a place to do science, our knowledge and our ability to collaborate internationally."

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