press conference

Young researchers and European policymakers jointly presented the Bratislava Declaration of Young Researchers in a press conference last month.

Credit: public domain

Young European researchers set groundwork for policy changes

Funding to pursue fresh research ideas and gain early independence; sustainable and transparent career trajectories; a diverse, collaborative, and ethical research environment; and a healthy work-life balance—these are all part of a wish list that a group of young scientists discussed with European policymakers last month.

Invited by the Council of the European Union, of which Slovakia is the current president, and the European Commission to voice their concerns and aspirations about their ability to pursue research careers, 10 early-career scientists from across Europe developed the document, called the Bratislava Declaration of Young Researchers. Overall, the declaration—which was discussed with the Competitiveness Council of ministers overseeing research in the 28 EU countries and Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland and then officially presented to the press—calls for better recognition of “the special role that young researchers play” in the research enterprise, and for implementation of new measures that will help them reach their full potential. The issues are complex, the authors acknowledge in the declaration, calling on European policymakers “to sustain a dialogue with young researchers” so that they may “become an active part of policy development.” The declaration is expected to be adopted by the council of research ministers at the end of November.

Common aspirations

The author group included individuals from a large spread of nationalities and scientific and institutional backgrounds, but consensus was easy to reach, says declaration co-author Charoula Tzanakou, a research fellow at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom who investigates gender balance in academia.

One of the first key issues faced by young researchers at the beginning of their careers is the “prospect of an extended period of career insecurity with non-transparent career progression,” the authors highlight in the declaration. “This provides an obstacle that can dissuade even the brightest young researchers from pursuing a research career.” What is needed, the authors argue, is the creation of “clear and structured career paths in both the public and private sectors.”

To this end, the declaration calls on the European Commission and member states to give young researchers more employment stability, notably by reducing the use of short-term contracts and clarifying the criteria for academic career progression. The authors would also like to see European and national policymakers offer young researchers the possibility of pursuing nontraditional academic careers—by becoming permanent staff researchers or moving between academia and industry, for example. Furthermore, the declaration calls on principal investigators and research institutions to meet their training responsibilities and “ensure that young researchers have the appropriate skill-set, mentoring, and networking opportunities to pursue a successful career, recognising that the majority will work outside academia.”

Other barriers that young researchers across Europe typically face include the bureaucracy and current focus of European funding agencies on research that is likely to yield economic benefits, both of which stifle young scientists’ creativity and freedom of thought, the authors argue. To address these concerns, the declaration calls on funding agencies “to trust and empower young researchers” and “radically reorganize funding streams” so that they may gain early independence and pursue their own research ideas.

The group of young scientists also deplored a lack of diversity in the scientific community, calling on European policymakers to launch a Europe-wide charter for diversity and equality and to make research funding conditional upon its adoption by host institutions. The authors also noted that today’s overly competitive research environment leads to “extreme individualism” and even scientific fraud. To promote a research culture that is “inclusive, supportive and collegial,” policymakers must further “enforce free sharing of data and ideas (e.g., open access publications and open data) and ethical behaviour (e.g. identification of individual contributions, post-publication peer review).”

In addition, the declaration highlights the importance of a healthy work-life balance and demands that more be done to promote it. “Researchers love what they do,” the authors state, but “[i]n many cases our vocation and enthusiasm is translated into unreasonable working schedules, continuous availability, inappropriate salaries and unstable contract conditions.” The authors call upon institutions to offer better child care options, flexible working hours, and job opportunities for dual-career couples. Finally, geographical mobility in research careers is highly valued in Europe, and may be difficult to achieve for a young scientist who has a partner or a family, so the European Commission and individual countries should equally reward other forms of mobility, including across disciplines and sectors, the group adds in the declaration.

Although the document is focused on European researchers and policies, many of the issues it raises are relevant to trainees across the world. As Gary McDowell, executive director of the San Francisco, California-based grassroots organization Future of Research, writes in an email to Science Careers, “[t]he Declaration certainly covers many key issues faced by today's junior scientists very well.” In particular, “[t]he calls for greater transparency in career pathways, funding streams for junior scientists, support for staff scientist positions, and improving the research environment are all things that ring very true in the US too.” (McDowell completed his Ph.D. in the United Kingdom before moving to the United States for his postdoc.) In fact, he adds, “Future of Research is setting up a number of collaborations with European partners as it is clear we all have very similar issues that we are facing.”

Making it real

That it was policymakers who sought young scientists’ opinions in the first place “was really encouraging, and what really struck me about the Declaration [was] that it had support at the highest levels in Europe,” McDowell continues, adding that while there haven’t been such overt moves in the United States, there are encouraging signs for increased political discussion there as well. The invitation was “very empowering,” agrees Tzanakou, adding that it was “a great opportunity” to tell policymakers about the issues that young researchers are facing and to explain “what they would like to see in the future.”

But even so, moving from a wish list document to actual change will likely be a challenge, notes Thomas Schäfer, a principal investigator at the University of the Basque Country’s Institute for Polymer Materials in Donostia-San Sebastián who participated in a June event organized by the Slovak Presidency and the European Commission asking for feedback on the declaration. He is also a founding member of the Young Academy of Europe and chair of Sci-GENERATION, a network that aims to feed young researchers’ views into European policy. “Many of the issues [in] this Declaration have been identified repeatedly in the past,” he writes in an email to Science Careers. Schäfer welcomes the initiative but warns that young researchers must now bring those issues down to the practical level and propose concrete actions to solve them. “Not being concrete is the best way to be overheard, or worse, to receive flowery expressions of support that will not turn into actions,” he writes. 

The proposed measures will also have to reflect the diversity of needs and situations across Europe, Schäfer adds. The call for employment stability, for example, “sounds right at first sight but in some countries in Europe it is precisely this stability for a lifetime that created a non-productive and protective research environment in which young researchers have little hope of career [advancement].” A policy dialogue that involves researchers of all generations and spans the European, national, and local level is urgently needed, he says.

One step the authors have taken in this direction is setting up an online petition for other young scientists and research organizations to comment on and endorse the declaration. At the time this article went into press, more than 150 researchers had signed the document. “This is some work that we have created as a starting point,” Tzanakou says of the declaration. “We really want young researchers to get involved and voice their opinions” about the issues and share ideas about what concrete actions could be taken, she adds.

“The petition is a very interesting facet to this Declaration,” writes Christopher Pickett, director of Rescuing Biomedical Research, a Washington, D.C.-based organization promoting policy ideas from the scientific community on how to solve career issues, in an email to Science Careers. “Should the petition gain sufficient support, it would be a very public demonstration of just how many of Europe’s young scientists feel about their career prospects. This could be a powerful tool to spur research institutions, Member States and the EC to partner with young researchers to implement real change.”

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