Obstacles to Mobility in Europe: Young Mobile Researchers Meet EC Policy-Makers in Crete

"We are looking for dynamic young scientists who believe that they have something to say on mobility in the E.U. scientific community and that their ideas for developing and improving the European situation in the 21st century should be heard." This call for participation was answered by over 100 young mobile researchers from 18 E.U. countries and associated states, who attended a conference on "Investing in Europe's Human Research Potential" in Crete, Greece, 4-7 October. Organised by the European Commission (EC) in collaboration with the General Secretariat of Research and Technology of Greece and the Marie Curie Fellowship Association, it was hosted by the Foundation of Research and Technology.

Within the Fifth Framework programme, the EC is funding 2600 Marie Curie fellowships per year, mainly for young postdoctoral researchers. These fellowships provide scientists with funding to perform research in E.U. host institutions outside their home countries and are aimed at encouraging mobility and training throughout Europe. Scientific panels within the EC are currently evaluating the impact and success of these fellowships. The main objective of the conference was for young researchers who had experienced mobility through a Marie Curie fellowship or a similar scheme to discuss their experiences of mobility with policy-makers. Their ideas would help shape the structure of the fellowships in the next framework. A number of EC policy-makers attended the conference, including Philippe Busquin, E.U. commissioner for research, and Achilleas Mitsos, director of the Human Potential Programme.

The conference was organised around a number of plenary sessions and workshops focusing on brain drain, obstacles to mobility, and obstructions faced by mobile researchers in establishing a European research career. In the session on obstacles to mobility, some of the participants mentioned legal, administrative, and cultural issues (such as language). For researchers with families, the lack of suitable job opportunities for their partners and suitable infrastructures for their children's education often forms an important barrier to mobility as well. (A recent survey showed that over 50% of Marie Curie fellows had a partner and/or children at the time of mobility.) "It happens often that your spouse does not want to be mobile or change jobs, because local jobs and friends are more important," says a Dutch postdoc working in France. "Unfortunately, there are many examples showing that mobility causes separation of families/couples with all the disadvantages which follow. Afraid of this problem, many researchers choose not to move."

But in the course of the conference it became clear that a greater concern for many is the issue of what happens after a period of mobility--when a researcher wants to establish a settled career. Reintegration into the home country after a stay abroad is a major problem, particularly for researchers from southern Europe. According to Marco Canepari, an Italian postdoc working in the United Kingdom, "In many E.U. countries the way in which senior scientists are appointed by universities is still strongly discriminating against researchers who have developed their career abroad. University positions in Italy are advertised in Gazetta Ufficiala [the official journal for public jobs] and not in more accessible journals or via the Internet." The lack of a "halfway house" between the fellowship abroad and a permanent academic post was mentioned as a major problem for more senior postdocs trying to establish themselves as independent researchers. Such tenure-track posts, which provide postdocs with the opportunity to develop their own research, currently exist or are emerging in a number of E.U. countries, but they are often open only to researchers from that country.

In the session on brain drain, Kenneth Stedman, a cell biologist from the United Kingdom, discussed his experience of mobility both in Europe and in the United States. Stedman is about to take up an assistant professorship in an American university, after a Ph.D. in the United States and a Marie Curie postdoc fellowship in Germany. "Personally, I feel that as a young academic scientist the conditions are much more favourable in the USA than they are in Europe, especially compared to France and Germany," he says. "After postdoctoral experience the next step in an academic career in the USA is an assistant professorship. Assistant professors have complete academic freedom, they can choose their own research, supervise their own Ph.D. students, and have a generous sum of money to establish their research."

So much for identifying the problems--what steps can be taken to overcome them? Several proposals were presented during the final day of the meeting by rapporteurs from different workshops. A proposal, which was formulated independently by participants in two different working groups, was to establish a new European fellowship scheme (for a duration of maybe 5 years) to fill the gap that currently exists between postdoctoral and established academic positions. Such "advanced European fellowships" should promote early independence of young researchers by providing them with start-up funds and other means to set up their own research groups or develop their entrepreneurships. It was recognised that such grants should not carry any geographical restriction within the European Union in order to allow researchers to establish themselves in the institutions of their choice and encourage further openness and mobility in Europe.

Another proposal was to stimulate an open European academic labour market for researchers by, for example, establishing E.U.-funded research professorships or team-leader positions for outstanding researchers with backgrounds of mobility. It is hoped that such team leaders would help spread the culture of mobility and further recognition of the European dimension of academic careers in their institutions. U.K. universities were mentioned as already showing examples of good practice in this way and were praised for having an academic job market that is open to all scientists, regardless of nationality.

The Crete conference provided young mobile researchers with a valuable opportunity, and many valuable ideas were generated. The question, however, remains how many of these ideas will be taken up by the policy-makers who will shape the fellowship programmes of the next framework.

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