Building a global picture of the motivations of young scientists to choose scientific careers and the conditions they work in is one of the ambitions of the Global Young Academy (GYA), which gathers more than 150 top young scientists from all continents. GYA's The Global State of Young Scientists (GloSYS) project, which was launched at the beginning of this year, aims to fill gaps in our current knowledge of the issues and concerns faced by young scientists around the world as they work to establish satisfying professional and personal lives.
Science Careers talked to sociologist Irene Friesenhahn, project officer for GloSYS at the GYA office in Berlin, Germany, about the ideas and hopes behind the project and how young scientists can get involved.
Young scientists need a very long time after they've received their Ph.D.s to become fully established, and for many of them this is a period of profound insecurity.
These interview highlights were edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: How did the idea for the GloSYS project come into being?
I.F.: The GYA was officially founded in February 2010. As early as 2008 and 2009, the young scientists participating in the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting of the New Champions wanted to establish the Global Young Academy as a platform for discussing the central issues that young scientists face while they are still not fully established. That is basically the aim of the GloSYS project today: to focus on issues and concerns of young scientists that should be addressed to improve their situation in the future.
Another aim of the project is to facilitate the diffusion among young researchers—and also among university administrations and science policymakers—of knowledge about academic careers, research opportunities, and working conditions in countries around the world.
Q: What kind of issues have you identified as central in scientific careers?
I.F.: Our working group defined a few topics that are very important for young scientists, such as mechanisms of support and access to mentoring, the issue of productivity, international mobility, and gender equality. Then, when we tried to find literature on those topics, we discovered that there is a lack of knowledge about these issues, especially in developing countries. That was the starting point for us: that only a handful of countries around the world, and mainly developed economies, have studied those issues in any depth. We realized that this is a bias that we should be aware of and address when we talk about the situation of young scientists and saw the need to launch a global study that tries to close this gap. The idea is to provide a more solid foundation to assess the state of young scientists around the world so that ultimately their working conditions can be improved in an informed way.
Q: What has been your approach?
I.F.: We started by reviewing the literature and trying to collect as much information as we could. We have members and alumni in 61 countries and maintain strong networks with the National Young Academies (NYAs), so we asked those people to send us all available documents about the academic profession in their countries so that we can synthesize the existing knowledge.
Gathering information that is very specific to a national context is also helping us to develop a survey with a suitable questionnaire that includes all the cultural dimensions that affect the conditions of young scientists. We started by interviewing people on different continents, again with the help and advice of our members and NYAs. We also had a workshop in May where we invited many experts who have experience in doing research on higher education in different cultural contexts.
Q: What kinds of questions will the survey be looking at?
I.F.: We have tried to focus on three aspects: career development, scientific productivity and impact, and the attractiveness of the academic profession. Within these three main areas, already there are several issues where we find national differences. You find, for example, differences in the job conditions or in the responsibilities and degree of autonomy that people enjoy. Some have the freedom to do their own research early in their careers, and others have to wait until they get that permanent appointment to be able to decide what they want to focus their work on. Also, there are differences in the amount and type of support that is offered to young scientists, in terms of both face-to-face mentoring when dealing with specific career issues and grants or support mechanisms available when it comes to balancing work and family life.
Another issue, which is a problem globally but with important country-to-country differences, is the transparency of the career path. Most people say they don't really know what they need to do to achieve their next step, or to become fully established.
Q: What is your timeline for the project?
I.F.: We only started at the beginning of this year. We plan to circulate a validated questionnaire this summer to selected target groups on all continents. In the second half of this year we will evaluate all of this: our collected literature, interviews with young scientists, engagement with experts, and data collection from the questionnaire. We will publish a first report, in December, about all the things we learn during this first year. The next step will be to use this as a foundation to prepare and run a study on a much broader scale. We think we would need 3 more years to gather and analyze all the data that we believe is needed to meaningfully inform policymakers and young scientists worldwide on how best to manage and improve the situation of young scientists.
Q: What do you and the GYA hope to achieve?
I.F.: We would like to have a snapshot of the state of young scientists across the developed and developing countries. The aim is to give information that wasn't available before, and to have a roadmap so that you can really see what the differences are, for example, in the working conditions of young scientists in different countries. It's for empowering young scientists, and we also would like to share this knowledge with other researchers who are interested in using our findings.
This is also an attempt to open discussions between young researchers and universities, funding bodies, policymakers, and different stakeholders interested in science and in the support and development of young scientists in their countries. The science landscape is changing globally, and young scientists are the most affected. But we are not only focusing on the problematic and challenging aspects of scientific careers; we would also like to find out more about the motivation and drive of young scientists. What motivates them to say, "Ok, I want to stay in academia although I face this issue or that issue?" What do they need to be optimally productive? The aim is to address these questions to have a chance to improve the situation.
Q: What do you think is at stake?
I.F.: Young scientists need a very long time after they've received their Ph.D.s to become fully established, and for many of them this is a period of profound insecurity. They don't know if they are good enough to stay in academia, or if they need to find another career for themselves, and if so, what their options are. Many are very motivated and very passionate about what they do, but they feel that sometimes the working conditions are not as good as they should be, and that the career path lacks transparency and security.
Many young scientists would like more support during this phase, as well as the opportunity to show that they are capable of doing very independent research from a very early stage, and to be trusted. They need to have opportunities to apply for grants that help them to do this, and sometimes those grants are not available. Young scientists—who often are key innovators and knowledge creators—represent an investment in the science and innovation system of a country, so supporting them well is vital.
So I think it would be good to have an overview of what kind of challenges and risks young scientists are facing during this phase in their life, not only as part of a research team but also in their personal life.
Q: To be a GYA member young scientists first need to be selected. Can non-GYA members get involved, and how?
I.F.: We are very interested in hearing from other young scientists. Some might know about people who have done similar research, and we would be interested in being in contact with them. We also would like to hear from young scientists about their own thoughts or ideas about the project, or gaps we have overlooked so far but they think might be very important. People can just refer to our Web site or send us an e-mail.
The GYA was founded by young scientists and has received support from the IAP: The Global Network of Science Academies , the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities BBAW, the German Young Academy, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, and the Volkswagen Foundation.