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Against the Clock: Expiry Date for Researchers in Germany?


Germany's employment law, relative to other countries', strongly protects employee rights; it is very difficult to fire someone who has a permanent contract. Up until 2 years ago, federal law allowed an employer give an individual a temporary contract for a maximum of 5 years; after that period, the employee had to be offered a permanent position or leave.  

In the realm of academic research, postdoctoral to midcareer research scientists often held a succession of 5-year temporary contracts. When any one expired, individuals simply moved to another university or research institute. Theoretically there was no limit to the number of 5-year contracts that a researcher could obtain before eventually getting a permanent position. The major problem was there were not nearly enough permanent positions available; a career bottleneck was inevitable.  

A Hotly Debated Topic

At the start of 2002, the German government introduced the university reform law, Hochschulrahmengesetz (HRG). The reform was necessary and was welcomed by the country's major science organisations (the German Research Foundation, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft [DFG], the Max Planck Society and the German Science Council) and the organisation that represents university heads (Association of Universities and Other Higher Education Institutions, or Hochschulrektorenkonferenz), although the HRG has been one of the most hotly debated topics in the country's academic circles. The HRG reforms included changes largely seen as positive, such as the introduction of performance-related pay and the creation of new junior professorships. But then there is the so-called 12-year academic qualification limit-- undoubtedly the most controversial of the bunch.  

In an attempt to rationalise a situation in which a researcher would end up having a string of 5-year contracts, the 12-year rule--15 years in medicine--capped the time period that a university (or publicly funded research institute) is allowed to hire using temporary contracts. The 12-year qualification period is split into a 6-year predoctoral phase and a 6-year postdoctoral phase. During the predoctoral phase, it doesn't matter where the work is done; work done overseas still counts towards the 6-year (and the 12-year) limit. Postdoctoral time spent abroad working for a non-German employer is not included. Flexibility is built into the system for parental leave and for specific personal circumstances. The system works to the advantage of those who complete their PhDs quickly; time "saved" in the prescribed 6 predoctoral years can be added onto the postdoctoral qualification period. 

As the German minister for education and research, Edelgard Bulmahn, argued in a previous Next Wave article, the major objective of the 12-year qualification limit was to finally call a halt to the insecurity that results from the ongoing employment of young researchers on temporary contracts. Certainly, it's a good idea in principle. But HRG critics say that that the government did not create the needed permanent positions to retain researchers after 12 years. The HRG-created junior professorships, as untenured positions, by definition cannot fill this gap.  

The 12-year rule is now seriously affecting a generation of the country's researchers, many of whom are currently midcareer but do not hold a full professorship or a tenured position. Many of these researchers have already established an independent group, published well, and brought in considerable third-party funding. Ruth Ganss, a tumour immunologist at the German Cancer Research (DKFZ) in Heidelberg, is facing this situation. "Next year is my limit; my 12 years are over," she explained in an interview.

After completing her PhD thesis in Germany, Ganss went to the US for a 2-year postdoc before her return to Germany in 1998. "I had always assumed that I could come back to Germany, work here at the DKFZ for 5 years, but afterwards still be able find a new 5-year position at another academic institution within the country." She feels that the 2002 reforms have narrowed her choices. "The 12-year limit initially meant I could stay longer at my current institute, but I am [now] unable to find further employment on temporary contracts anywhere in Germany." 

Some researchers, though, are relatively satisfied. Felix Naumann currently holds a 5-year DFG- funded junior professorship in the computer science department at Berlin's Humboldt University. He feels that the 12-year period is "fair, assuming universities avoid burdening researchers with excessive administrative duties." Although Naumann also holds a temporary contract, he feels positive about his chances of getting a tenured position.  

The greatest difficulties have arisen for researchers who made career decisions prior to 2002 and, if they had been aware of government's plans, might have chosen differently. "When I see the situation I am in now, I think it would have been wiser to stay abroad," admits Ganss. "In the US I could have tried to apply for grants while still working as a postdoc, and I would have moved to an independent position once I had some money secured. Now, from a position in Germany, being German, it is very difficult to get a foot into the door."

Marc Kenzelmann is a Swiss national and carried out his doctoral research at the University of Bern in Switzerland. Kenzelmann has worked as a postdoc at the DKFZ since 1999. At the start of this year he obtained a 5-year position leading a small group within a department at the institute. Kenzelmann has already hired a PhD student and plans to hire a second. But just recently he was informed that his doctoral time in Switzerland counts, which means, apparently, that he can stay for only another 2 years at the DKFZ.

Kenzelmann, however, did military service during that time in Switzerland and took a 7-month practical course. By proving that that this time wasn't part of his doctoral time, he was able to extend his time limit to March 2008. "If I had known about this complication of my doctoral time counting, I would have had major reservations taking the position; although I now have an extension, the initial time frame (2 years) I was given wasn't realistic. One cannot take on commitments such as PhD students under these circumstances."

This scenario is having an impact mainly on researchers who are at Kenzelmann and Ganss's stage. But how many people will actually be affected? "Official statistics do not allow insights into this," says Wedig von Heyden, secretary-general of the German Science Council (Wissenschaftsrat).

"I have enough money from grants ... but I still have to leave."

Most would agree that it is entirely in the interest of universities and research institutes to retain researchers who have proven academic track records. University administrators complain that it is a question of budgetary restrains. So what reasonable solutions exist? The German Science Council has deliberated on these issues. "From our point of view, there should be incentives for universities to give more people permanent positions after they have completed their 12-year qualification period," explains von Heyden. "One of these could be more flexible possibilities to terminate a permanent work contract (which is pretty impossible today) when third-party funding of a project ends." The defining factor is third-party funding--that is, the distinction between researchers who are self-financing (and are most probably bringing in substantial grant money) and those who aren't. The ones who have their own finances should be allowed to stay on.

Early this year, the German Science Council published a declaration recommending that permanent positions for researchers with third-party funding should be created, with the condition that if the third-party money dries up, the individual can be legally given notice. To achieve this, changing the HRG would be necessary. This recommenadation gained the approval of all the major players in the German research scene (Association of Universities and Other Higher Education Institutions in Germany, German Research Foundation, Leibniz Association, Max Planck Society, Helmholtz Association, and Fraunhofer Society) and was deemed to be a fair approach to help relieve the exodus of experienced researchers and avoid the situation like Ganss's: "I feel I am doing a good job, and I have enough money from grants to continue my work, but I still have to leave."   

"It should be your boss, not the government, who decides whether you stay or not," commented Roger Sandhoff, a biochemist also working as a postdoc in Heidelberg. Sandhoff has until September 2005, and at the age of 38 he feels that he simply isn't "interesting anymore for industry."  

The Ministry for Education and Research has officially stated that contracts can be extended and that university administrations are fully entitled to do this. But in practice it is more complicated, as von Heyden explains: ?On the one hand, the 12 year period itself could be extended (or reduced) for specific disciplines by collective labour agreements between the relevant unions and the state (as the employer of university staff). But at the moment, there are no indications that this could really happen. On the other hand, there are possibilities to get a temporary position after the 12 year period itself is completed. But such contracts would have to conform with the German Employment Act on 'Part-time and fixed-term (temporary) contracts' (?Teilzeit- und Befristungsgesetz?). Universities, however, are currently hesitating to do this.?

The hesitation is grounded in reasonable concerns that such contracts can bring the employer into murky legal waters. For example, in this context, a temporary contract is only justified if the employer can prove that the occupation won?t actually exist after the contract expires. According to German employment law, dependency on third- party money is not a valid reason that a job exists or ceases to exist. There certainly seems to be a lot of general confusion. For example, Kenzelmann was informed that his Switzerland-based doctoral time counted in his 12 years only after he had accepted his 5-year position in Germany. "There is a problem with communication; the correct information has to be made much more transparent," he stresses. "I basically was misinformed."

There is no doubt that a significant number of midcareer researchers in Germany are in professional limbo. Kenzelmann sees problems arising for German science if many senior postdocs have to leave.  Sandhoff feels that that the situation he is facing could really put off younger researchers and says he could see many more "going straight to industry." Ganss sums up the dissatisfaction: "Of course it is a dream scenario to have a permanent position, but I would rather have a contract that needs to be renewed every 5 years instead of being unemployed."