Pan-European pension fund for scientists leaves the station

Hopping from country to country in Europe can put a dent in your pension plans.

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Pan-European pension fund for scientists leaves the station

MANCHESTER, U.K.—Old age may not be something European scientists think about as they hop around the continent in search of exciting Ph.D. opportunities, broader postdoctoral experience, or attractive faculty positions. But once they approach retirement age, many realize that working in countries as diverse as Estonia, Spain, or Germany can be detrimental to one’s nest egg.

But now, there is a potential solution: a pan-European pension fund for researchers, called RESAVER, that was set up by a consortium of employers to stimulate researcher mobility. The fund was officially created on 14 July under Belgian law as a Brussels-based organization. Three founding members—the Central European University in Budapest; Elettra Sincrotrone Trieste in Basovizza, Italy; and the Central European Research Infrastructure Consortium headquartered in Trieste, Italy—will soon start making their first contributions. Researchers can also contribute part of their own salary to the fund.

“We have a solution” to preserve the pension benefits of mobile researchers, Paul Jankowitsch, who is the former chair of the RESAVER consortium and now oversees membership and promotion, said earlier this week here at the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF). “The excuse [for institutions] to do nothing is gone.”

The European Commission has contributed €4 million to the set-up costs of RESAVER, as part of its funding program Horizon 2020. At least in principle, the fund is open to the entire European Economic Area, which includes all 28 E.U. member states except Croatia, as well as Norway, Lichtenstein, and Iceland.

Most European countries offer social security, and it's usually possible to get access to benefits even if they're accumulated in another country. But many universities and institutions also provide supplemental pension benefits that are not so easily transferred. Researchers who spend part of their career abroad—even if it's just a few hundred kilometers from home—can find themselves paying into a variety of supplemental plans, often resulting in lower benefits than they would enjoy if they just stayed put. This puts a damper on scientists' mobility.

The idea behind RESAVER is to create a common pension fund so that supplemental benefits will simply follow scientists whenever they change jobs or countries. Individual researchers can only join through their employers, which is why it’s essential for the scheme’s success that a large number of institutions around Europe join the initiative.

The big question is whether that will happen. In addition to the three early adopters, the RESAVER consortium, which was created in 2014, has some 20 members so far, together representing more than 200 institutions across Europe. That's just a tiny fraction of Europe's research landscape—and even most members of the consortium have not yet committed to joining the fund.

Take-up has been slow for a variety of reasons. According to Jankowitsch, the fund represents a long-term financial risk that many universities and research institutions are not accustomed to. Local factors further complicate matters. In France, many researchers have their pension fully covered by the state as civil servants. Although many institutions in Spain are part of the consortium, there are obstacles in Spanish law to joining a foreign pension fund. And in Germany, researchers at the Max Planck Institutes have little incentive to join because they already enjoy attractive pension packages.

Risk was also a concern for researchers in the audience at this week's ESOF session. The RESAVER pension plan will be contribution- rather than benefit-based, meaning that researchers will know how much they put in but not how much they’ll get, as they would with many other pension plans in Europe. Although the fund has been conceived as a pan-European risk-pooling investment, Jankowitsch acknowledges that there will always be risks in the capital market.

Some attendees also wondered whether, with so few institutions participating, RESAVER could actually be a barrier to mobility, at least in the short term, by limiting researchers to those institutions. Young researchers worried about inequalities because Ph.D. candidates are employed in some places but are considered students in others, making them ineligible for participation. (The consortium is currently negotiating a private pension plan for researchers who don't have an employment contract.)

The International Consortium of Research Staff Associations (ICoRSA) would like to see more transparency in the fund’s investment plan and more flexibility and guarantees for researchers, the organization says in a position statement sent to ScienceInsider today. But overall, “ICoRSA welcomes the initiative.”

Jankowitsch is optimistic: “We see a lot of questions, but not obstacles,” he said at ESOF. Institutes can benefit, because offering RESAVER to employees could give them a competitive hiring advantage, Jankowitsch said—but he encouraged researchers to urge their employers to join, if necessary. “If organizations are not joining, then this is not happening.”