Researchers' Charter: A Paradigm Leap?

On a hot summer's day in Rome in July 1991, Canadian anthropologist David Aliaga sat at the Italian Ministry of Universities and Technological Research, nervously waiting for his Ph.D. oral examination to begin. The examiners never showed.

Nearly 13 years later, Aliaga still hasn't been awarded his Ph.D., and despite his unrelenting campaign, he has not been given the right to an appeal. During his doctoral studies in Italy he received little supervision, only 8 months of funding, and an examination process that in his eyes was completely unfair. Aliaga has been in professional limbo ever since.

His supervisor's reaction: "I'm sorry, David."

Worldwide, working conditions for researchers -- from doctoral to faculty members -- vary greatly, and can at best be described as arbitrary. In Europe, the situation is complicated by heterogeneous educational and funding systems and the lack of a regulatory framework that researchers can depend on as they build their careers.

A strong signal on researchers' rights

In an effort to address this issue, last month the European Commission (EC) published a recommendation, "The European Charter for Researchers and a Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers". Although the document has no legislative power, many stakeholders perceive it as a strong signal to member states that they need to pull up their socks when it comes to researchers' rights. The EC staff, along with stakeholders ranging from researcher's representatives, to university rectors, to trade unions, hammered out the content of the Charter and Code over a discussion period of 9 months. As the EC's Sigi Gruber explains, prior to the formulation of this document "the [professional] status of researchers was not defined."

Even though the document has no legislative clout, it has been welcomed by most interest groups as a necessary and positive change. Yet the burning question remains: Will employers take its recommendations seriously?

The Charter and Code comes 18 months after the EC issued a communication entitled, "Researchers in the European Research Area: One Profession, Multiple Careers", the first serious indication that the EC was finally addressing the professional needs of the researchers themselves. The central aim of the policy-makers was to meet the European Council's goal of spending 3% of the Gross Domestic Product on R&D and to make the continent the "most competitive and dynamic knowledge based economy in the world by 2010."

The EC estimates to reach this target, an additional 700,000 researchers will be needed. A strategy to both retain researchers in Europe, and make the profession an attractive one to new recruits was on the agenda. "One Profession, Multiple Careers" called for the development of a Researchers' Charter "as a framework for the career management for human resources in R&D." Gruber explains, "There was a fragmented position [across Europe] and no reference point." A consensus was clearly needed.

The Researchers' Charter defines itself as a "is a set of general principles and requirements which specifies the roles, responsibilities, and entitlements of researchers as well as of employers and/or funders of researchers." It applies to researchers throughout their careers and equally to research activities in industry and academia.

Researchers, says the Code and Charter, have obligations related to research freedom, professional responsibility, accountability, healthy research practices, and relationships with supervisors. On the employers' side, a wide range of good practices are discussed, including both individual issues like working conditions, stability and permanence of employment, career development, funding, salaries, and collective issues like gender balance.

It is hard to estimate accurately the extent of ill treatment of researchers in Europe, but Gruber claims that, based on consultations with organisations representing researchers, such as the Marie Curie Fellowship Association (MCFA) and Eurodoc, it isn't rare for researchers to encounter difficulties.

In an effort to get representative viewpoints, the Charter and Code were drafted by a consortium of stakeholders including the MCFA, Eurodoc, Euroscience, the European University Association, the European Industrial Research Management Association and the trade unions EUROCADRE and the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE), among others.

According to Gruber, a key point the Researchers' Charter is making is that "if you want to be treated as a professional, you have to act professionally." Euroscience president Jean-Patrick Connerade, who was also involved in the round table discussions, agrees: "It is a two-way process."

Implementation of the Charter and Code will be a challenge, since they are "policy instruments," which member states may choose to adopt--or not--on a voluntary basis. Alexandre Quintanilha, Director of the Institute for Molecular and Cell biology in Porto, Portugal--and a member of this stakeholders group--believes that for the Charter and Code to be effective, "we have to develop pressure [on all levels], but with the cultural differences there is no single recipe."

Some proponents of the Charter and Code think it may be endorsed by certain institutions, which would provide an incentive for other organisations to adopt it. Connerade imagines it could be "similar to the U.S., when organisations have an equal opportunities endorsement [on their official documentation] and [thus] may give a better deal to employees." Quintanilha agrees, and personally he hopes that institutes that support the Charter and Code might get "some brownie points for it."

A more daring approach would be to tighten the funding purse strings through the Charter and Code. Gruber explains that the Commission intends to propose (to member states) its endorsement as a criterion for securing funding for the 7th Framework Programme.

Aliaga--along, probably, with many other researchers who have had experienced the kinds of difficulties the Charter and Code aim to address--welcomes their arrival. "I'm very pleased," says Aliaga. "I firmly believe it is a good step forward, meeting the objective of implementing some sorely needed standards across universities and academia in the EU."

Italian scientist Andrea Raccanelli who has taken his former employer the Max Planck Society (MPG) to court claiming discrimination on the basis of nationality, says "from a personal perspective, I'm glad to see it". However, he admits he is "not that optimistic" that all institutions will adhere to it. After spending two years trying to find a diplomatic solution to his own case, Raccanelli feels that only drastic measures--like taking legal action--are likely to be effective for institutions that choose to ignore fair employment policies. Raccanelli's legal case argues that most non-German MPG doctoral candidates are offered only scholarships, in contrast to German nationals who (the lawsuit claims) are offered full employment contracts-which include social security and pension rights-much more often.

Adverse impact on funding?

In practice, some the Charter's stipulations may cause headaches for funders of science and for employers. Gerlind Wallon, the manager for the European Molecular Biology Organization's (EMBO) Young Investigator and Women in Science programmes says EMBO is in favour of the Charter and Code and, in fact, already practises many of its recommendations. However, some of the Charter's stipulations would be very expensive. Paying full social security benefits, for example, could add up to a third on the funding price tag. Without a substantial increase in the budget, the penalty could amount to a drop in the number of fellowships awarded and overall success rates, she warns.

The Charter and Code is unique for its pan-European approach, although several individual member states already have some guidelines for the treatment of researchers. For example, last year the U.K.'s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Educations issued a Code of Practice for Postgraduate Degree Programmes. U.K. institutions that fail to implement these standards--after a warning period--could face funding restrictions by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Across the Atlantic, Alyson Reed of U.S. National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) says her association is interested in the European Charter and Code and will monitor its developments. The NPA, she explains, along with other stakeholders, currently are "considering the benefits of creating a document on professional standards for postdoctoral education." The need, she believes, is there. "The NPA spent a lot of time trying to encourage National Institutes of Health (NIH) to set minimum standards" for postdoctoral training that would apply to institutions and PIs, but so far NIH has made no commitments. In the meantime, the NPA has drafted a set of recommendations for " Postdoctoral Policies and Practices" .

All interested parties now have the task of raising the profile of the Charter and Code. "We need to take the document to various organisations," says Connerade, to raise awareness and "to attract people into the profession." Yet for some of the people involved---like MCFA's Dagmar Meyer--adopting the charter's recommendations should be almost automatic." Many of the issues that are raised in the recommendation," says Meyer, "are accepted as self-evident in other professions." She believes that the part of the problem is a need for greater societal appreciation of researchers. "If the general image of researchers' profession improves, there will be more pressure on institutions to apply the principles spelled out in the recommendation".

For David Aliaga, regrettably, the damage is already done. This year he halted his campaign for an appeal. Although, he says, "my life was devastated," he takes a stoic attitude. "You can find corruption wherever you go, [but] the only way to stop it is to have a clear mandate." It remains to be seen if the Charter and Code can deliver. If researchers are given a fair professional environment, says Quintanilha, it will create "a better and more creative atmosphere for scientists."

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