Retaining and developing research talent more important than ever

Retaining and developing research talent more important than ever

by Clare Viney, CEO, CRAC/Vitae

CRAC/Vitae welcomes the support package announced by BEIS/DfE, it will go some way to help mitigate the short-term effects of Covid-19 and secure the UK’s research talent base.


The Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting uncertainty is challenging for researchers globally, but the impact on postgraduate researchers and early career research staff, particularly those on fixed-term contracts is acute. There are an estimated 40,000 early carer research staff in UK universities. They are a highly skilled and productive cohort critical to the research output. They are typically in a position of high job insecurity with 74% employed on fixed-term contracts of predominately less than three years. This translates to a minimum 30% annual turnover for this staff group making them a clear target for achieving reductions in staff numbers by not renewing or extending contracts. Postgraduate researchers are also impacted due to receiving stipends below the living wage, and loss of supplementary income from part-time teaching, demonstrating, and other employment.

Without this package there was a risk that early career researchers would bear the brunt of the higher education financial crisis. We now have to ensure that universities do the right thing; prioritising retaining and developing research talent.

Impact of Covid-19 on researchers

The recent SMaRteN/Vitae survey highlights the substantive effect of the lock-down on UK-based postgraduate researchers and research staff. Many researchers will have to (or will have had to) adjust or change the direction of their research as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Some of this will be to support Covid-19 research efforts, while for others it will be because of being unable to continue their previous lines of enquiry, due to the loss or suspension of research facilities. Such a major disruption to research activity could have significant consequences for the short- and long-term careers of researchers; half of researchers reported being very stressed about their work, with two thirds very worried about their future plans and 70% worried about their finances.

Blurred chemistry bottles

Priority support to inspire and enable talented researchers

Vitae believes that to inspire and enable talented people in the UK we must:

  • Attract and retain talent: UK research base is highly dependent on international research talent with approximately 40% of our PGRs and 30% of our academic staff coming from outside the UK. There is already evidence that the prospect of Brexit has increased the outflow of EU researchers from the UK and potentially discouraging EU researchers from coming to the UK
  • Maintain a healthy research and development ecosystem: It is more important than ever that we improve research culture and increase our equality diversity and inclusion (EDI) efforts in light of evidence of the uneven impact of Covid-19 due to protected characteristics and personal circumstances. The SMaRteN/Vitae survey showed that researchers with caring responsibilities (of any kind) were disproportionately impacted by the lockdown, reported more strongly by female researchers. There are reports female researchers are posting fewer preprint journal articles and starting fewer new research projects than their male peers. This must be addressed through systemic and cultural change to create a healthy research environment that recognises and rewards diverse contributions to the research system.
  • Support the flow into and beyond academic research: The UK research talent pipeline relies on attracting high numbers into doctoral degrees, not just to supply academic research, but to develop highly skilled and innovative individuals for many employment sectors. Potential Covid-19 disruption to this pipeline includes lower attractiveness of research careers and reduced flow into doctoral degrees. There is also a mismatch between the supply of researchers, their career aspirations and the absorptive capacity of businesses to capitalise on their talents as researchers. Our research shows that researchers who move beyond academic research have high career satisfaction and are unlikely to want to return; however intersectoral transitions are not always straightforward.

Working together for recovery

The Researcher Development Concordat provides a framework for BEIS, DfE and other stakeholders to respond to the disruptions to researchers and their research activity caused by the Covid-19 restrictions and to minimise the implications to their long-term careers and the UK research base. It articulates the importance of an environment and culture that embraces diversity; that researchers are given equality of opportunity and rewarded appropriately; and provided with the professional and career development to be adaptable and impactful across a wide range of employment sectors.

The UK (and the work of Vitae community) in supporting the professional and career development of researchers through the Researcher Development Concordat is recognised as world-leading; setting the UK apart from other countries and attracting researchers.100 UK institutions have achieved the EU HR Excellence in Research Award recognising their ongoing implementation of the Concordat Principles. It is important that this progress is not lost as the sector understandably focuses on the financial and operational impacts of Covid-19 disruptions. Vitae understands the need to work together to demonstrate that the development of researchers is not a ‘nice to have’ or ‘discretionary spend’ but strategically important in developing research talent and capability.

Researcher developers have quickly adapted their offerings for remote working, and demand for professional and career development, mentoring, coaching and training has significantly increased since mid-March, reflecting researchers’ underlying concerns. We will continue to work with our community to share good practice and demonstrate the value and place of researcher development as fundamental to a thriving research ecosystem.