Getting Back to the Bench--Across Europe!

The European Molecular Biology Organization ( EMBO) has introduced the first pan-European fellowship to help scientists who have taken a career break return to the bench. The programme is open to Ph.D. holders who have been out of research to bring up a family for at least a year.

Up to eight Restart fellowships will be available in the first year. That may not sound like many, but as EMBO's Gerlind Wallon explains, the current call is a "pilot scheme, to see if there is a demand and how big the demand is." Anticipating that there will be a demand, EMBO Executive Director Frank Gannon says, "We hope we will obtain greater funding in the future." Indeed, a proposal for increased funding for the fellowships is to be put to EMBO's member countries for consideration in 2003 for the next budget round beginning in 2004. The initial signals are promising: Member countries are "very in favour of the women's programme," asserts Wallon.

The Restart fellowships will carry the same stipend as EMBO's long-term fellowships, which, "if you're over 30 and have children, gets pretty good," says Wallon. Wallon also points to an allowance for each dependent on top of the basic salary. Again, as with the long-term fellowships, awards will be made for up to 2 years. Unlike long-term fellowships, however, there is no requirement that the recipient move to another country to take up the award.

"The period of highest dropout of women from science is between 30 and 40," points out Renee Schroeder, a group leader in the Institute of Microbiology and Genetics at the University of Vienna and the mother of two children. "This period is especially hard because two major tasks overlap: setting up one's own laboratory ... and the raising of a family. Both tasks require more than 100% of one's time and energy." Even more pressure is put on women at this difficult time of their lives because of the prevalence of age limits on existing fellowship programmes. "Why should somebody not go back to science at the age of 40?" she asks. "You still have at least 30 years for doing science in front of you."

Things are changing, says Wallon. In addition to the new EMBO award, which carries no age restrictions, a number of national funding bodies are discussing abolishing age limits on their grant programmes. Wallon cites the Swiss National Science Foundation ( SNF), which has recently scrapped the age limit for women applying for its prospective and advanced researcher fellowships. SNF also has dedicated Marie Heim-Vögtlin grants for women scientists who have interrupted, or greatly reduced, their research work, usually to raise a family.

Unlike the Marie Heim-Vögtlin scheme, EMBO's new awards are open to both men and women. Although, as Wallon admits, it still tends to be women who stay at home to look after small children, the women who were consulted as EMBO developed its women-in-science policy were "adamant" that men should be included in the programme. As Next Wave reported last week, it can be particularly difficult to return to a scientific research career, so this scheme is bound to be welcomed by scientist-parents across Europe.

The annual closing date for the Restart fellowship is 15 August. Decisions on the first round of applications will be made in November 2002.

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