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A message from the front-line of R&D

06 Oct 2015

Sue Ferns, Deputy General Secretary at Prospect, on the views from members working in the frontline of research and development

 recent Prospect survey enables us to contribute to debate on the upcoming Spending Review with the authentic voice of members working in the frontline of research and development.

2,079 members responded to the union’s survey in June: A highly qualified and age diverse group, including 27% women.  Just over a third of responses came from the civil service, with a similar number from the private sector and the remainder from members in a range of other organisations including charities, research institutes, public-private partnerships and universities.

The full report can be found here but the key findings are worth sharing:

    A high proportion of work is now undertaken on a commercially confidential basis, even in the public sector where over 60% of respondents reported that more than half of their work is now commercially confidential. This includes 35% from the civil service compared with 23% when we last asked at the turn of the millennium – as shown below. 19% of respondents from the civil service reported that they had been asked to tailor research conclusions to suit a customer’s preferred outcome.

Growth in commercially confidential work in the Civil Service 1999-2015 (% of respondents)

    Fewer respondents expect their organisations to benefit from increased capital investment in the next three years than have benefited in the past three years. There is a high level of uncertainty about future investment intentions.

    Cuts in public funding have affected R&D across the economy over the past five years. While concerns are strongest in the public sector, significantly 45% of respondents from private companies report that their organisation has been adversely affected.

    The civil service has been hardest hit by job losses, but there have been significant staff reductions across all sectors, as shown in the chart. Among a range of specialist skill shortages, engineering skills are a high priority for all. The shortage of IT and software specialists is particularly acute in the public sector, whereas a shortage of electrical engineers and nuclear specialists is the priority in the private sector.

Changes in staff numbers (% of respondents)

    Over half of respondents consider that the expertise within their own organisation has declined in the last five years – including 60% in the civil service and 49% employed in the private sector and other public bodies.

    There is very little optimism about career prospects in STEM, with 47% of respondents believing that they do not have any further opportunities to progress. Budget cuts and flatter organisational structures are seen as key barriers.

Our survey provides a stark illustration of the decline in publicly funded science.

Privatisation, the reduction in government-sponsored research and skills shortages are long-standing trends. But they have accelerated with the spending cuts experienced in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

In Prospect’s view, decisions on investment both in science capital and the underpinning resources needed to operate R&D facilities will be key to developing a stronger and fairer economy. Successive governments have paid lip service to this objective, but they have so far failed to deliver.

The 2015 Spending Review must do so before it is too late.

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