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A New ERA for Research Careers?

No career structure. Lack of opportunities to carry out independent research. Poor pay and conditions. European early-career scientists have plenty to complain about. And they have been voting with their feet, leaving Europe to pursue research elsewhere. Meanwhile their younger brothers and sisters are turning their backs on science. In traditionally research-active countries such as Germany, France, the UK, and the Netherlands, universities are struggling to attract students to study maths, physics, and chemistry, in particular. But the political will to tackle these issues has largely been lacking--until now. During the 6 months of the Italian presidency of the EU, research careers, and how to make them more attractive in the European Research Area (ERA), are a top priority.

Suddenly, mass disillusion and desertion are a policy hot potato, and as you might guess, money is the motivation. More precisely it's the EU's famous 3% target which is causing all the excitement. The Lisbon European Council in March 2000 set Europe the goal of becoming the "most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world" by 2010. Two years later the council, meeting in Barcelona, decided that the way to do this was to raise research spending to 3% of EU average gross domestic product (GDP) in the same time frame (it currently hovers around 1.9%). Which is all well and good, but there's no point investing in research if there's no-one to actually do it. The European Commission (EC) estimates that if the countries of the EU manage to reach their spending target, an additional 700,000 researchers will be needed. That's on top of the fresh-faced researchers needed to replace retiring scientists.

On 18 July the EC adopted a Communication, Researchers in the European Research Area: One Profession, Multiple Careers , which sets out a series of actions to be undertaken by the commission itself, and by the EC in cooperation with the Member States, aimed at making research careers more attractive. Many of the ideas and proposals put forward in the Communication were endorsed by a meeting convened by the EC and the Italian presidency, which took place at the European University Institute in the hills above Florence on 17 and 18 July. The conference was divided into a number of working groups (see box), each charged with focussing on a different aspect of the problem.

Between them the conference and the Communication made a number of key recommendations, impacting on every stage of a researcher's career.


Critical to attracting young people into scientific careers is ensuring that there are a "sufficient number of permanent positions at the end of the long training process," said Daniela Corda, rapporteur for working group D. But, she highlighted, that does not necessarily mean only traditional, hands-on research roles. "Science needs very many professions," she explained, a fact recognised by the EC in its Communication. The paper acknowledges that "it is necessary to consider any activity directly or indirectly related to R&D, including the management of knowledge and intellectual property rights, the exploitation of research results, or scientific journalism, as an integral part of a career in R&D."

So not just geographical mobility, but mobility between sectors and types of jobs should be a feature of future research careers. "The policy lesson is that any of those careers will have to be treated and valued on an equal footing, without maintaining the preponderance of an academic research career as the only benchmark for attracting young people into such a career track," says the Communication.

European Conference on The Career of a Researcher in the ERA Working Groups

  • A European employment market for researchers: prospective needs

  • The public perception concerning visibility and recognition of a researcher's profession/career: reality and needs

  • The opening of the national systems at European and international level for recruitment, evaluation, and further development of the career

  • Taking into consideration the profession/career of a researcher within the administrative systems, is there a need for a European regulatory framework?

  • Public/private research: to create and reinforce pathways for the development of the researcher's career

  • The contractual dynamic in research: from a predoc/postdoc fellowship towards an independent position. Possibly evolution?

  • Although there have been numerous initiatives in recent years, at both national and European level, aimed at promoting public appreciation of research, "there has never been a coordinated European strategy to improve and promote a better public recognition of careers in R&D," states the Communication. Raising the profile of the human factor in research would be the aim of a European Year of Researchers, which the EC proposes as an activity to be initiated by the Member States and the research community.


    As Eurodoc's pan-European study shows, the status and financial situation of researchers studying for their PhDs is highly variable across the continent, leading working group D to endorse the need for a European regulatory framework in the case of doctoral candidates. With the cooperation of the Member States, the EC says in its Communication that it intends to "initiate a systematic inventory of the status of doctoral candidates, of how doctoral programmes are structured and organised in different European countries, and what the requirements for gaining access to them are."

    This proposal also begins to address other recommendations raised by meeting participants. For example, Conor O'Carroll, rapporteur for group F, said that this group had reached a consensus that structured PhD research training programmes are a good thing, and recommended that the EC undertake to "map current practices" for such programmes. Group C went further, suggesting that the "Commission should write a framework of quality standards for research degree programmes."

    The quality of PhD supervision is an issue that is often raised in these pages (for example, see Nourish Talent! by May-May Meijer), and Kari Kjenndalen, rapporteur for working group D, called for action to "strengthen the institutional responsibility for the doctoral programme and candidates." This suggestion echoes the EC's wish to see Member States and the research community "integrate structured mentoring as an integral part into doctoral programmes," as well as offering "doctoral candidates better access to a supervisor at all levels."

    The need to think about research careers more broadly also places an imperative on doctoral training programmes to adapt. "Cooperation with industry is beneficial to training," highlighted rapporteur for group E, Nicholas Watts, while Juergen Enders, rapporteur for working group A, wanted to see "incentives to organise PhD training as a journey through different research environments," such a set up helping "to anticipate careers in multiple institutional settings."


    But if more thought needs to go into PhD-level training, the postdoc is "in danger of becoming another step on the educational career ladder," warned Enders, who called for "support for building research capacities around promising young researchers for independent work." Nonetheless, others saw the need for ongoing professional development opportunities at the postdoctoral level. "New skills are needed," such as supervision of PhDs and leadership, pointed out O'Carroll. Kate Runeberg, rapporteur for working group C, recommended that "the commission should write a framework for career management of researchers based on good practice with voluntary regulation," and that its implementation and impact should be monitored by an independent panel. She cited the UK's Concordat and Research Careers Initiative as an example of such an initiative. And once again, the EC is on the case, with a promise to "launch the development of the European Researcher's Charter, a framework for the career management of human resources in R&D."


    Encouraging geographical mobility is an essential element in building the ERA, but "universities, and to a lesser extent public labs, are examples of national, sometimes even local, inbreeding when it comes to the recruitment and selection for senior positions," asserted Enders. "How can we expect young talents to believe in the value of international mobility as long as the role models persist in being home grown?" he asked. It's difficult for foreign researchers to break into many research systems at levels above postdoc. "Transparency is needed in recruitment processes within countries," Runeberg said, and added, "common selection criteria in Europe would be useful." It's a situation that should be eased by the EC's promise in its Communication to "outline a Code of Conduct for the recruitment of researchers."


    "We need better support--income, career perspectives, infrastructure, resources--for those who are currently working in the research system," highlighted Enders. "Our investment per researcher falls behind [that of] the US." Of course everyone would like to be paid more, but it's difficult to make a persuasive case for an increased salary if you don't know the going rate. The EC's Communication points out that few comparative studies have been carried out, but that the ability to compare financial conditions is a necessary prerequisite to encourage mobility and assess the attractiveness of a research career. Thus the Communication states that the EC will "develop the means to enable the research community to compare salaries, including social security benefits and taxes, between countries, between disciplines, between sectors, and between male and female researchers."


    The picture that is clearly emerging is of a job market in which building a successful career will require considerable flexibility on the part of the researcher. Mobility, both geographical and intersectoral, will be key, which is perhaps why Runeberg highlighted her group's conclusion that there is a need to encourage researchers to take ownership of their personal development. "The commission should encourage the use of learning contracts and personal development plans for young researchers," she said. In fact, the EC's intention is to work with Member States to "develop a framework for recording and recognising different professional achievements throughout the career of researchers." Such a framework would help researchers to demonstrate the true value of their career experiences to potential employers unfamiliar with their backgrounds, it is hoped.

    So plenty of good intentions and fine words. But experience has shown that dictates from on high are not enough to introduce the cultural change needed to make a real difference to research careers. The whole of the research community will need to buy into the process. As Raffaele Liberali, director of the human resources directorate at DG Research, pointed out, researchers will need to get active and lobby if they are to persuade national governments to increase their research budgets. And young researchers themselves will need to take full responsibility for their own training and development if they are to forge a satisfying career in the complicated new world of the ERA.