Young European Scientists Draw Up Agenda for Change

The present and future situation of young scientists in Europe and strategies for involving the younger generation of scientists in the design of European science policy were the topics of discussion at the second International Forum of Young Scientists. Held in Gdansk, Poland, between 7 and 9 October, it brought together 54 young scientists from 22 countries, a high percentage of them from Eastern Europe. The first international forum was held in Budapest in 1999 as a satellite of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization-International Council for Science (UNESCO-ICSU) World Conference on Science, and this follow-up meeting was organized jointly by UNESCO and the Marie Curie Fellowship Association (MCFA). Various organizations active in science policy were also represented, including the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators, the European Science Foundation , Euroscience, the Institute for Employment Studies in Brighton, U.K., and Prospective 2100 in France.

A recurring theme of the formal and informal discussions was the sheer unattractiveness of research careers. Future R&D is under threat unless Europe can keep its young scientists by creating a more employment-friendly environment. Funding must be found to close the widening gap between research budgets as a percentage of gross domestic product in European countries and in the United States. And young scientists should be able to achieve autonomy at an earlier stage of their careers to take advantage of their creativity and productivity.

The Conference's Action Points

  • Give scientists more independence earlier in their careers.

  • Remove administrative and statutory barriers that make transnational careers very difficult.

  • Institute "return grants" to avoid possible problems with brain drain.

  • Define a European postdoctoral status to allow employment of mobile postdocs in countries where currently rigid national systems prevent this.

  • Give better support to scientists from Eastern Europe and improve harmonization between East and West.

  • Defend intellectual property rights more effectively.

  • Encourage wider skills training in postgraduate degrees.

  • Implement mechanisms for young scientists to participate in policy-making.

Another much-aired theme was the great diversity in the European labor market. There is significant unemployment in some areas, but there are major skills shortages in others. Despite encouragement through E.U. programs, mobility is limited. It is driven mainly by job seekers rather than by industry, except for positions at the highest level. Greater dissemination of information about jobs and opportunities and about the range of skills and qualifications available in Europe could enhance communication between employers and all their potential employees.

Scientists need to be aware that the diversity of the job market means that they cannot always expect to find jobs based on their scientific excellence alone and that they should be alert to the possibilities of lifelong learning. Although knowledge is important in a job market that is experiencing a shift from low- to more high-skill jobs, scientific excellence has to be complemented by personal, business, and information technology skills. This requires individuals to take responsibility for their career development, but it also demands willingness on the part of universities to train students in the skills required for industry and research, such as teamwork, leadership, and project management. As the ability to draw on more than one discipline becomes increasingly valuable, the training offered by universities should reflect this shift.

For universities to successfully meet this challenge, they need to interact more with industry, which must inform academia of its evolving needs. At the same time, industry should be more flexible in its employment strategies, creating positions for interdisciplinary, multilingual, highly technically and personally skilled scientists whose qualifications do not fit within tight job profiles. The creation of national and European industry advisory boards for universities is a possibility, as is greater involvement of industrial representatives at the individual university level, especially with respect to curriculum development and audit. Academics need to be able to collaborate with industry and government without their career development being jeopardized.

The problem of brain drain attracted much attention and is a particularly significant problem for Eastern Europe. Although greater mobility is clearly a potential benefit for individual researchers, it can mean a loss of knowledge and skilled personnel for home institutions if fellows do not eventually return home. So mobility has to be stimulated, but, equally, the gain from the return of cross-culturally educated people has to be valued by their home countries. And incentives are needed to encourage mobile researchers to return home. Linking fellowships to assistance with establishing research facilities upon fellows' return, particularly to countries with less developed research infrastructures, should form a key part of this policy. Additional incentives may also be required for individual researchers to cover the transitional costs of returning, as well as incentives to encourage home countries and institutions to welcome returning scholars and ease the transition between different research cultures and systems.

The importance of acceptance of science and technology by the public, alongside a need for scientists to become more accountable to the public, was also discussed. Genetic modification technology is a clear example both of the need for greater integration of the public into scientific decision-making and also of the need for education about risks and trade-offs. It also illustrates the use of misinformation technology and the influence of economic power in shaping research agendas: Scientists must no longer allow themselves to be used in the service of economic or military powers independently of ethical considerations. Young scientists, as producers of knowledge, have a key function in increasing communication with the public. More communication channels, like the MCFA and Euroscience, are needed for young scientists to gain influence on science policy decisions.

As a result of the forum debates, eight action points (see box) were formulated and presented during the final session to the parliamentarians of the Council of Europe, thus forming the basis for the discussions of the following Conference on Science and Technology in Europe. The participants were very satisfied with the outcome of the meeting and expressed the need for the International Forum of Young Scientists to become a regular platform for discussion among scientists, representatives of science organizations, and parliamentarians in order to influence European science policy.

The author is member of the editorial committee of the MCFA Newsletter of the Marie Curie Fellowship Association.

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