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Career Breakthroughs of the Year, 2004

Breakthrough of the Year: The Globalization of Scientific Careers

Everyone knows that science is international and has been for decades. These days it's practically a cliché. Scientists have traveled far and wide for many years; some of the most important scientific breakthroughs in history were made by expatriates. But even as science itself knew no boundaries, scientists have continued to know a few. It's only in recent years that the scientific workforce has become international, well, in a truly global sense.

It's impossible to put a date on when it happened--it's been happening for years really--but 2004 seems as good a year as any to proclaim, arbitrarily, that the fait is really accompli. 2004 was the year when people really started to admit that an international scientific workforce is something no country can afford to take for granted.

So why now? The foreign contribution to America's scientific workforce has been growing steadily over decades. Yet America is not the center of the scientific universe it once was; the migration dynamics have changed enough for those outside direct science circles to take notice. Other nations--Europe, Canada, and elsewhere--have begun to work harder to keep their scientists at home, while also aiming to increase scientists' mobility. China is training huge numbers of scientists, but it's also managing to employ an increasing number of them. American and European governments are in a virtual panic over their own local, apparently imminent, versions of a scientist shortage.

Has this perceived shortage lead to an increase in demand for talented researchers? Is this good news for your career? It would be nice, after all, to see employers sweating for once, instead of potential employees. Yet we surmise that in all these places, young scientists still struggle to find jobs, just as they have for decades. The number of visible science jobs seems, on the surface, to be smaller than the number of scientists seeking them. So far no crisis has occurred in either direction of too many scientists or too few. Unemployment among scientists is creeping up, but it's still rather low.

What is going on? How can there be too many scientists and too few? We don't really understand it ourselves, but we're pretty sure it has something to do with the fact that science employment is increasingly a global game, while most of us are still thinking of it in old-fashioned, local terms. When it comes to scientific expertise, the key scientific nations are not accustomed to international competition. But now, it seems, they're getting the message. Maybe now we'll see real efforts by national and regional governments to create and support a research environment where the very best scientists want to be.

The Runners-Up

Europe: Tackling Obstacles to Mobility

Researchers who wish to travel to or within Europe can now benefit from the network of E.U. funded Researchers' Mobility Portals and European Mobility Centres that support international career opportunities. This year 12 national mobility portals were launched that contain information on issues pertinent to mobility -- from funding opportunities to social security ? tailor-made for researchers' needs. The complimentary mobility centres offer a personalised advice service for any queries related to mobility issues.

Canada: The Canadian Research Chairs

The year 2004 saw the expansion of the Canada Research Chair (CRC) program, resulting in the establishment of 331 new chairs in disciplines ranging from neuroscience to nanotechnology. And in contrast to previous years, this year a substantial fraction of the new positions went to women.

Since the program's launch in 2000, CRC has helped universities across Canada attract and retain some of the world's best researchers in natural sciences and engineering, health sciences, social sciences, and humanities. So far the Canadian government has pumped in nearly $1.3 billion, establishing 1348 research positions at 73 Canadian universities and keeping some scientists who might otherwise have moved across the southern border or overseas in Canada.

But that's just one of the goals of the CRC program. CRC also seeks to attract expatriate scientists working in the U.S. or elsewhere back to Canada and draw a few foreign stars from outside Canada. This November alone, 194 new Chairs were awarded, 79 of which went either to returning Canadian expatriates or to international researchers coming to Canada. The balance--115 scientific jobs--went to scholars who otherwise might have left Canada in search of rewarding employment. One CRC highlight of 2004 was the increase in the number of chairs awarded towomen ; a record 35% of new chair-holders are women, compared with 17% in previous years.

U.S. Postdoc Unionization

It really wasn't all that big a deal. A small number of postdoctoral fellows at the University of Connecticut Health Center (UCHC) had been trying for years to have their grievances heard by the administration, but to no avail. Finally at their wits' end, they decided to form a union.

Early this year their efforts paid off when the administration agreed to a contract guaranteeing UCHC's employee postdocs a minimum salary, regular raises, a good health insurance plan, retirement benefits, sick leave, vacation time, mandatory regular performance appraisals, and several other employment rights that U.S. professional employees often take for granted.

None of the terms they won were especially generous. The minimum salary the postdocs agreed to was still below the first-year NIH NRSA level, which is often used as an informal benchmark. Yet it was a huge improvement over what they had before. Most importantly, the UCHC postdocs now feel, for the most part, like they're getting the professional treatment they deserve.

In isolation, though, this would hardly constitute a breakthrough. Only a handful of postdocs were involved. Indeed, there hasn't been any obvious, profound response; the UCHC agreement didn't set off a unionization frenzy among postdoc organizations. The event was important because it put policy makers and administrators on notice: Fix the postdoc situation or the postdocs will fix it themselves.

Europe: The EU Opens Its Doors

The expansion of the European Union itself this year, with nine new countries on board, gives wider career and mobility opportunities for scientists of both the new and old member states.

France: Tenure-Track Jobs Saved by French Protests

2004 was a year in which European researchers showed a willingness to challenge their national governments. In France, the future and morale of French researchers had been hard hit by deep government budget cuts in previous years. One consequence of these cuts was the demise of 550 tenure track positions--jobs that were traditionally a major career step for early researchers on the road to independence--and their conversion into 3-5 year contract jobs. With the threat of a strike, the directors of France's government-funded research agencies managed to save these permanent positions. By May, the government was making promises to ?unfreeze? past R&D budgets and increase the spending for 2005.