CROS – Bristol’s Own!

This is the story of CROS, and its origins, in the University of Bristol (1).

Once upon a time… researching in universities was a bit of a gig economy.

Hmm… *pauses and glances cynically at the audience*

Anyway, back to the story.

Back in the post-war period, universities would employ (often graduate) contract researchers to carry out specific research tasks. Some of them did one contract. Some did more. Some became lecturers. Some didn’t. There weren’t many research jobs – but that was OK because universities weren’t so reliant upon research income and lecturing posts were easier to get, and there weren’t many PhDs, and so the whole situation ‘gigged along’ reasonably happily.

But then, in the 70s, more people started getting PhDs (2). And then industrial sponsorship and the gradual commercialisation of universities meant more postdoctoral positions… that were then taken by those with the PhDs, who then wanted more research positions… and at some point in the 1990s, the situation evolved into one very much like the present one, in which a community of research staff (highly skilled in research, and in their own specialist area) were employed on temporary contracts by universities… until the research was done. Then they were largely left to fend for themselves.

In 1996, most of those involved in Higher Education and research funding (the research councils, the British Academy, and bodies like the wonderfully entitled “Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals”) agreed that “something must be done” to support the rising number of staff in the universities who were on temporary research contracts, to make sure that they weren’t being taken advantage of, and to explore how to equip them to find jobs outside of H.E. when they were done. Together, they drafted a ‘Concordat’ (basically, a contract) to “provide a framework for the career management of contract research staff in universities and colleges”. A copy of it is available at

The Concordat went down well. But it was only a piece of paper and wasn’t ‘enforceable’ in any sense.

What was needed was evidence – that would show which universities were failing and where, which were succeeding and where, and who could learn from whom how to do better.

And so in 2002, a group that included a resourceful and imaginative HR manager from the University of Bristol, along with a manager from Bristol’s Institute for Learning and Research Technology came up with a proposal… they would get funding from HEFCE, to set up a new online survey tool to run a new survey every other year or so, which would tell them how well universities were doing in holding to the Concordat. (3)

The online survey tool was Bristol Online Surveys – upon which the survey still runs. And the survey was the ‘Contract Researchers Online Survey’, which quickly became the ‘Careers in Research Online Survey’ = CROS (4)

(1) For those interested in the history of the CROS (!… I mean… I am… which others might find a little embarrassing, but I’m not ashamed) there’s a brief timeline on the Vitae website. What the timeline doesn’t mention is Bristol’s role. I mean, why would they? But *I* know this stuff because somewhere between completing my PhD in 2009 and now, in amongst the postdoc work and other bits, I worked for Bristol Online Surveys and was the person mainly responsible for delivering the CROS survey and training, which contained a brief ‘historical’ bit. I never thought it would be useful until now!

(2) David Bogle has written a History of the PhD which is interesting reading for those who, like me, are interested in this stuff.

(3) Projects like this were the order of the day when I worked in IT. A policy concept (the Robert’s report – also 2002), an online-based IT innovation and bob’s your designated relative.

(4) Commonly pronounced ‘CROSS’ – because ‘CROZ’ just sounds really naff.