Steppingstones to Independence

Ask just about any scientist in Europe where the problem with research careers lies, and, despite its mosaic of different academic systems and cultures, you're likely to get the same answer: gaining independence. Research jobs are not, in fact, that hard to come by--after all, the demand for researchers in many countries has never been higher--provided that you are prepared to work in someone else's lab, on someone else's project. What is tough is finding the mental, financial, and physical space to start your own lab.

The good news is that many research funding bodies are coming to recognise this gap. And, as the capacity crowd that gave up a balmy evening on the Nice seafront to learn about "the hottest postdoctoral fellowships in Europe" heard recently, they're adapting their funding programmes to try to give young scientists that essential leg up to independent research careers.

All three funders represented at the European Life Sciences Organization meeting that evening in June--the European Commission (EC), the Human Frontiers Science Program (HFSP), and the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO)--have well-established and well-respected schemes to support young researchers' first steps toward independence (see box below). Finding your own fellowship means that, even though you might be working in someone else's lab, you are paying your own salary and you often have your own money for things such as travel and consumables, giving you a welcome degree of freedom. These fellowships encourage independence in another way too: A condition of the Marie Curie (EC) and Long-Term (HFSP and EMBO) fellowships is that recipients move to a different country, ensuring that they start to build new networks removed from the comforting (or confining) sphere of their Ph.D. supervisor's influence.

But even when it comes to these well-established programmes, the grant-givers are listening to the requirements of young researchers. HFSP insists not only that its fellows change countries, but, in keeping with its goal of promoting interdisciplinary research, that they also move into a new field as well. This means that "2 years [the original length of the fellowship] is not enough in a new country," explained HFSP's Danuta Krotoski. In response, HFSP has increased its Long-Term Fellowship (LTF) to 3 years. HFSP is not alone in this realisation. Raffaele Liberali, director of the EC's directorate of the human factor in research, announced that the maximum length of a postdoctoral grant awarded under Framework Programme (FP) 6 will also be increased from 2 to 3 years.

The Hottest Fellowships

The European Commission

The European Molecular Biology Organization

    ?   Long-Term Fellowships

    ?   Young Investigator Programme

The Human Frontiers Science Program

    ?   Long-Term Fellowships

    ?   Career Development Award

    ?   Young Investigators' Grants

Mobility itself can bring problems, which the funders are also trying to respond to. As many young scientists have found, long-distance job hunting can be tricky, so assistance with reentry to their country of origin can only be welcome. Although the first 2 years of the HFSP fellowship must be spent in a foreign lab, there is considerable flexibility about where, and when, the third year of the grant can be taken. Although the third-year funds can be used immediately in the host lab, you can also "bank" them, explained Krotoski, saving them for up to 2 years to assist with "repatriation," i.e., funding a year of laboratory work in your home country. Similarly, under FP6, Liberali proposes that EC fellows would be able to spend 2 years abroad and a third back at home. In fact, pointed out Krotoski, about 50% of HFSP fellows do return to their home country, with France experiencing the highest repatriation rate and Germany the lowest, "because people can't get positions."

They might have been billed as the hottest postdoc fellowships in Europe, but in fact both the HFSP and EMBO LTFs have always been global: The only stipulation is that the recipient must be from, or move to, a member country. And in FP6 the EC is looking beyond Europe, too. Europe's goal is to build a knowledge-based society, explained Liberali, and that "means attracting to Europe the best researchers from all over the world." So early-career researchers from anywhere will be able to apply to the EC's programmes for funding, and the quid pro quo for Europeans is that they will be able to take their fellowships to the Americas, Australasia, or Asia.

Of course for any country or continent, encouraging researchers to leave represents a risk as well as an opportunity. They just might not come back, which is where fellowships with a reentry component can help. But more important still is helping returnees establish their independent labs--and all three funding bodies have recently introduced schemes designed to help there, too.

EMBO's Young Investigator Programme is already up and running and has proved overwhelmingly popular. Winners of the award get the networking support of EMBO and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, plus recognition from the community, which can help them win grant applications at a time when they might not have much else to show on their CVs.

New schemes from HFSP and the EC aimed at allowing a researcher to put down roots, meanwhile, will simply provide hard cash. The EC's plan is to award professional research grants to researchers with at least 2 years of international mobility. The ?30,000 to ?40,000 they will be given can be used to negotiate "a good return"--a better faculty position, for example--by giving "added value" to the researcher, explained Liberali. Those who have spent more than 5 years outside Europe may return to any European country, although others must use the money to "reinsert themselves" back into their country of origin.

The thinking behind HFSP's Career Development Award ( CDA) is similar, although unlike the EC's grant, which can be awarded to anybody, only former HFSP long-term fellows are eligible for the CDA. HFSP's goal, explained Krotoski, is "brain circulation," so the purpose of the award is "to enable those fellows, if they choose to return home, to flourish." Although HFSP is "very flexible" about how the ?180,000 can be spent, fellows can only begin spending it after they have become independent researchers. In effect, it is 2 to 3 years' worth of "money in hand to enable them to negotiate a better position," says Krotoski, describing the scheme as a "Trojan horse" that places young researchers in a stronger position with respect to the powers that be at their prospective institution.

HFSP has another scheme to give the newly independent a boost. Rather than compete with established scientists for project grants, teams of two or three scientists within 5 years of obtaining their first independent position may apply for a Young Investigator Award. Worth $250,000 a year for 3 years, the aim is to bring together interdisciplinary teams to tackle novel problems--so HFSP is particularly keen to see life scientists working with mathematicians, physicists, or chemists, says Krotoski.

Of course, there's only so much that funding bodies can do. As Liberali puts it, career development is "under the control of member states." But the commission is keen to find ways of working with others to fundamentally improve the structure of early scientific careers, something Liberali believes "cannot be done by making fellow after fellow." Despite the fact that the human resources and mobility element of the EC budget saw the biggest percentage increase of any area between FP5 and 6, and now, at ?1.58 billion, represents nearly 10% of the total FP6 budget, giving out the money is always a balancing act, says Liberali. Clearly there can be fewer fellowships if you finance each one for 3 years rather than two, a dilemma that HFSP has also faced.

Nonetheless, if it is used prudently, the financial clout of major funding bodies such as HFSP, EMBO, and EC can have an impact on the wider community. This has been shown in the United Kingdom, where the decision of the Wellcome Trust (a biomedical charity) to pay its Ph.D. students and postdocs up to 30% more than the going rate has prompted government funders to increase their stipends. It is clearly more difficult for international grant-givers to have the same impact on individual countries, but when they all start to pull in the same direction, there must be some hope for the future careers of today's generation of scientists.

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