UC Must Improve Job Security and Provide Clear Paths to Career Advancement
I am an Associate Research Physicist at UC Berkeley and a member of the bargaining team for the newest group of unionized workers at the University of California, Academic Researchers United / UAW 5810. I study the dynamics and evolution of solar atmosphere via computer simulations of the Sun’s “space weather” in order to predict its impacts throughout the solar system and on Earth. Space weather can affect power transmission lines, satellite communications, the safety of airplane flights, and more. I became involved with organizing the union because the University of California’s research system is too often stifling, restrictive, and atomized — impeding the kind of innovation, creativity, and stability necessary for breakthrough scientific research. Changes are necessary.
Academic Researchers at UC have a number of titles; we are Project Scientists, Specialists, Professional Researchers, and Coordinators of Public Programs. We power the university’s $6 billion research mission. During my 13 years at UC, it has become clear that the university could be and should be doing far more to support its academic workforce. By denying Academic Researchers fair pay and benefits, support for sustained research and growth, and equity at work, UC is failing its own historic role as the state’s primary academic research institution, resulting in a loss of promising talent to other universities and private industry. Instead of raising the bar, the University of California has continued to ignore troubling inefficiencies and inequities for years.
These systemic issues aren’t confined to UC but through our bargaining process, the union and UC have the opportunity to provide a model to the nation for making substantive and significant progress right now. National science organizations have issued reports again and again and again that identify needed reforms. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) described the main problem as “a gulf between the burgeoning number of scientists qualified to participate…and elusive opportunities to establish long-term research careers.” But after years of studies, UC has done very little to act on the recommendations. With a union, Academic Researchers can finally take action to make our research system work better.
Our union is focused on bridging this gulf by working to make UC a place where researchers have the option to build real careers — not a precarious stepping stone that could flip on you at any moment. For example, UC only provides short appointments — typically one year at a time — that we string together, sometimes for decades. This means we could lose our positions and have our research upended at any moment. This ongoing precarity is inefficient and undercuts research projects that continue for many years.
Job insecurity disincentivizes the pursuit of bold, cutting-edge research that should be the goal of any world-class university. Every one of us knows that we could devote more time, energy, and creativity for higher-impact, more meaningful research if our employment situation was more stable. Many studies have shown that job and funding security encourages scientists to choose projects with more potential for breakthroughs, leading to better research outcomes overall. You simply cannot do your best work if you are constantly faced with potential research interruptions and the uncertainties of increasingly politicized federal funding budgets and agency priorities.
For my colleagues who are international researchers on guest worker visas, improving job security is especially important. Their visas require continuous employment, so due process in a union contract means protection from unjust deportation. And UC’s short appointments also means frequent visa renewals, which involves traveling outside the US and can take weeks or even months. Longer appointments for my international colleagues would mean fewer disruptions in research and also fewer hurdles to reporting discrimination and harassment. In the current political climate, the protection of a union against anti-immigrant attacks is critical.
The NASEM report also recommends creating “career tracks with clearly defined review and promotion processes, as well as opportunities for professional development.” For most Academic Researchers at UC, a clear path to advancement does not currently exist. Promotion policies are opaque, confusing, and often involve months or years of inexplicable bureaucratic delays. For example, UC routinely fails to notify researchers when we are eligible for promotion, and rejects promotion applications without a clear reason. Without transparency, there’s no check against arbitrary and discriminatory treatment.
The University of California should also make a real commitment to its Academic Researcher workforce by addressing one of the most universal scenarios that almost everybody funded through research grants has experienced: gaps in their external grant funding. Even a one month gap can mean promising research progress and projects are abandoned. One simple solution to this is short-term “bridge funding” for Academic Researchers. This safety net mechanism will save the university money in the long run and encourages the pursuit of more ambitious, long-term projects. It’s a win-win scenario.
The third bargaining session begins this morning and will continue through tomorrow. Our goals include improved job security for all researchers, a clear and equitable path to promotion, and compensation that matches our value to the research system, thereby creating a more productive and efficient research system at UC.
Through the collective bargaining process, our union and UC can improve the status quo that holds back researchers and potential discoveries. Through our first contract, we hope to bring UC’s outdated systems in line with what the research has shown is most effective: a fair, transparent workplace that values its employees and allows them to grow and their research to thrive.