Preserving Quality Research at the University of California

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II. How UC Human Resource Policies Undermine
the Quality and Productivity of the UC Research Team

Twelve-Year Employee Leaves UCLA Tissue Typing Lab after Five Years with no Wage Increase; Earnings Increase 60 Percent in New Private Sector Job; UCLA Hires Three Researchers to Replace Him

Chris Cabacungan was an SRA III who worked for twelve years at UCLA's Tissue Typing Lab. The lab matches people for organ transplants through histocompatibility testing. Chris played an important role as the designer and coordinator of a proficiency program which receives DNA samples from histocompatibility labs worldwide and determines the accuracy of the labs' tissue typing results. Chris solicited the program's participants, wrote the computer program to analyze and track data received from the labs, and developed expertise in DNA sequencing.

Chris recently accepted a position with Reprogen Inc., a start-up biotech firm based in Irvine, California. At Reprogren, Chris will manage a DNA sequencing core that looks for genetic causes of diseases of the reproductive system. Chris's main reason for departure is monetary. His base salary at the UCLA lab was $36,000, compared to $60,000 at Reprogen. Chris hadn't seen a merit increase in five years and says, "I feel I've never been rewarded at the lab." While transitioning to Reprogen, Chris is also training three SRAs to assume his duties at UCLA Tissue Typing. He estimates that it will take three months to bring his replacements up to par. They will still be limited, however, by their lack of computer programming skills. Chris's departure is a setback for the UCLA lab, which will no longer benefit from the computer and DNA sequencing know-how that he acquired while working at the lab.


A. High Turnover
Major discoveries in basic knowledge, medical treatments, and technology that seem to burst forth full-blown on the front pages of newspapers are actually made possible only through the slow accumulation of data and observations and the contributions of many scientists over long periods of time. Continuity of personnel is vital in such progress and discoveries. High turnover rates not only consume resources for training, but also inhibit the synthesizing of myriad pieces of data into working theories. In contrast to students, who carry out experimental work as part of their own professional training but whose tenure on a research project is by nature limited, research professionals provide the long-term continuity that is an important factor in maintaining a stable, high-quality research program.

Table 3. Annual Turnover Rate 1994-1997

Since 1994, the turnover rate among Staff Research Associates (SRAs) has averaged 33 percent a year.[6]

Not only does this high turnover rate have serious implications for the quality and continuity of the research product, it also reflects poor management of federal and state research dollars. In effect, the high turnover rate means that a substantial portion of government grant money is funding unnecessary training, not research. Typically, it takes six months to a year to train a new researcher to perform all expected research and management functions independently. With a 33 percent annual turnover rate, many research programs must constantly take in fresh trainees, with consequent loss of productivity and cost-effectiveness of research dollars.

Furthermore, when UC researchers leave the University system for private sector jobs, their UC-supported research training in effect amounts to a public subsidy to support the research of profit-seeking private companies.

To be sure, the character of university research makes some measure of turnover among researchers unavoidable. Some researchers are recent graduates who, upon discovering inadequate career opportunities at UC, opt to move on to medical or graduate school. (As noted earlier, SRAs should not be confused with undergraduate and graduate researchers who conduct research as part of their studies and then move on.)

However, the vast majority of SRAs are research professionals who work on UC research programs year after year. For these career professionals, the renewal of existing grants combined with the influx of new grants could allow the University to provide them with the commitment of continuous and rewarding employment. But an annual turnover rate of one out of every three research professionals indicates that the University has chosen not to adopt human resource practices that ensure the continuity of these key members of the research team. This, in turn, disrupts the progress and quality of the research process.

B. Inadequate Investment in Research Professionals
Many experienced and highly qualified research professionals are leaving the University, frustrated by stagnating salaries, perpetual casual status, and low morale because the University does not recognize their contributions to university research.

1. Stagnating Salaries
UC professional researcher salaries have failed to keep pace with the external labor market.

There is a 25% pay gap, amounting to $11,818 a year, between the average annual pay of UC researchers and researchers working in comparable positions outside the UC system, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) area wage surveys.[7] The data is presented in Table 4. The wage comparisons document that there is a significant pay gap for researchers on each of the three largest UC research campuses:

At UCLA, research professionals earn, on average, $18,318 less than comparable researchers in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, a 34.6 percent wage gap.[8]

·At UC San Diego, research professionals earn, on average, $13,743 less than comparable researchers in the San Diego metropolitan areas, a 28.3 percent wage gap.[9]

·At UC San Francisco, research professionals earn, on average, $10,061 less than comparable researchers in the San Francisco metropolitan area, a 22.5 percent wage gap. (The San Francisco figures is a weighted average of four categories of "scientist" compared to the four SRA levels.)[10]

At UC Davis, research professionals earn roughly what comparable researchers earn in the Sacramento metropolitan area. As we discuss later, UC Davis also has the lowest rates of casual employment and researcher turnover among the four campuses.[11]

Table 4. UC and Non-UC Researcher Salary Comparison

This pay gap is the result of UC compensation policies that have failed to raise research professionals' salaries at a pace commensurate with both the external marketplace and with the rising cost of living. Since UC has two different compensation policies, one for Staff Research Associates I (SRA I) and another for Staff Research Associates II through IV (SRA II-IV), we discuss each of these separately.

Staff Research Associate I: Wage Increase Trails Inflation by 12 Percent. Approximately one-third of UC research professionals are classified as SRA I. This group receives an annual cost-of-living wage increase (COLA).[12] The UC COLA has failed to keep pace with the rising cost of living. While the cost-of-living increased 17.6% in the Western U.S. between 1991 and 1997, the UC COLA increased only 5.6% over the same period, a gap of 12% points.[13] In other words, while the cost-of-living increased almost three percent every year during this period, UC cost-of-living increases went up less than 1% a year.

SRA Grades II-V: Discretionary "Merit" Increases Average 1.9% Per Year. Two-thirds of UC researchers are in SRA grades II-IV. This group of research professionals receives annual increases solely on the basis of discretionary "merit" pay. In other words, this group of researchers is not guaranteed an annual wage increase upon satisfactory job performance.[14]

SRA I Wage Increase Trails Inflation (graph)

The University's discretionary "merit" adjustments even for those who are rated as "consistently meets expectations"or "outstanding" have not been sufficient to keep pace with the marketplace and with inflation. University "merit" pay policies are designed to ensure that experienced research professionals who "consistently meets expectations" rise very slowly in the salary range and rarely advance beyond the mid-point in the salary range.[15]

As a result, according to UC data, it takes 13 years for a majority of SRAs in grades II and III (the largest group of research professionals) to reach the mid-point in the salary range. The mid-point is 25 percent above the start rate. This amounts to an average 1.9% annual wage increase.[16]

Once an SRA reaches this salary midpoint, University policy is designed to stall further wage increases. According to the University merit pay guidelines, "once paid at or above the midpoint, further progression within the range may be relatively slow and contingent upon exceptional performance."17 In other words, it takes 13 years to reach midpoint, with annual increases averaging 1.9%, and, after that, upward progress stalls almost completely.

2. High Rates of Temporary ("Casual") Employment
In addition to below-market pay, the high turnover rate among UC research professionals is the result of the University's increasing reliance on casual employment. By failing to provide employment security to a growing group of UC professional researchers, UC is losing them to private sector employers.

UC defines a casual position as one that is established for less than one year or at less than 50% time for any duration.[18] While research programs do sometimes require temporary help, many UC research employees are allotted casual status even while they are working in full-time, ongoing positions. Departments manage to keep such employees casual through a loophole that the UC administration encourages: the employee serves 364 days, then is laid off for a one-day break in service, and then serves another 364 days. It is not unusual to find SRAs who have devoted five to 10 years to a particular lab but have been denied career status and benefits by the imposition of yearly one-day breaks in service.

In 1997, 28% of UC research professionals were classified as casual employees. [19] At UCLA, an astounding 64% of SRAs (733 out of 1,142) were classified as casual employees. Other campuses with a high percentage of casual employment include UC Irvine, 29%; UC San Diego, 10%; and UCSF, 15%.[20] The majority of new positions listed in the UCI job bulletin are for casual employment. The discrepancy in the rates of casual employment on some campuses-only five percent at UC Davis, for example-illustrates that the trend toward casual employment is a result of conscious policy, and is not based on the "temporary" nature of research work.

Casual employees are denied many of the benefits enjoyed by career employees at the University. Casuals receive a minimal individual health plan (with no family coverage), and do not receive dental or vision coverage. They do not receive retirement benefits. Most do not receive annual merit-based salary increases. Casuals may be terminated at will, and they do not have the same access as do career employees to promotions, transfers, and upward reclassifications.[21]

3. Low Pay and High "Casual" Employment Lead to High Turnover
Below-market pay rates and patterns of temporary employment contribute directly to the high turnover rates among UC research professionals. The UC campuses with the highest rates of turnover are also the UC campuses with the highest market-based pay gaps and rates of casual employment.

UCLA, with the highest pay gap (34.6%) and highest rates of casual employment (64%) also has the highest turnover rate of 49% a year. (One out of every two researchers at UCLA leaves every year.)

UC San Diego and UC San Francisco have high turnover rates of 27% and 30%, respectively, and also have high pay gaps (28.3% and 22.5%) and high rates of casual employment (10% and 15%).

In contrast, UC Davis has a low 5% turn-over rate, corresponding to its much lower rate of five percent casual employment and small pay differential.

Table 5. Comparison of Pay Gap, Casual Employment, and Turnover at Four Largest UC Research Campuses

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Four-Year Lawrence Berkeley Employee Who "Exceeds Expectations" Rewarded with 2 Percent Annual Wage Increases; Departure Leaves Gap in Contamination Control Program

Bill Carson joined the staff of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in 1994, having just completed his master's degree in civil engineering at UC Berkeley. As a staff research associate, Bill was assigned the important task of investigating and containing chemical and other contamination of groundwater and soil at LBNL. Bill became an expert at his work and took pride in his contributions. But he wanted better financial rewards. After four years at the lab with performance ratings of "exceeds expectations," Bill's salary had grown by only 8.5 percent - an actual decline in real wages vis-à-vis inflation.

After reviewing data showing his salary slipping behind the market, Bill decided to send out resumes. He received several offers and recently accepted an appointment at Levine Fricke Recon, an environmental consulting firm located in nearby Emeryville. Bill's new job will increase his base salary by 15 percent, and he is eligible for bonuses of up to $5,000 every six months.

Meanwhile, Bill's departure will be costly for LBNL. Control of underground contaminants is a sensitive issue at any Department of Energy site. It is especially sensitive at LBNL, located in the environmentally aware city of Berkeley. It will probably take a year for a new person to develop Bill's intimate knowledge of the lab's hydrogeology, contaminant distribution, and the many nuances of the site. Before leaving, Bill had been working on a high-profile site restoration project as part of a ten-member team. He had been involved in all aspects of the project, including playing the lead role in a soil vapor extraction pilot test. The site restoration will inevitably be delayed by the loss of an important team member. More significantly, LBNL lost a well-trained researcher in contamination control.