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Charting the careers of European researchers

A decade ago, the European Commission pledged to improve and standardize the working conditions of researchers across the European Union. The European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers, which celebrated their 10th anniversary last month, spelled out some basic principles intended to ensure constructive relationships between researchers, employers, and funders across the continent. The idea underlying the commission's efforts was that giving researchers the same professional rights and obligations wherever in the European Union they work will make European research careers more attractive.

Creating the charter and code of conduct “was a bold move at the time,” says Miguel Jorge, a chemical engineering lecturer at the University of Strathclyde in the United Kingdom. “They are very well written documents [that] focus on the most important aspects that researchers should be concerned with. It's a very good benchmark for good practice.” However, 10 years on, adoption of the charter and code of conduct appears patchy; many researchers are not even aware that the guidelines exist. How much of an impact have they had on the lives of scientists? Science Careers wanted to find out.

There have been tiny baby steps, but if you're talking about a European charter and code, you want to do a lot better.

—Pat O'Connor

Laying the foundations

Miguel Jorge

Miguel Jorge

Courtesy of Miguel Jorge

The charter spells out the professional roles, responsibilities, and entitlements of researchers, their employers, and their funders. Some of the charter's requirements intended for researchers, for example, highlight the importance of accountability, building supportive relationships with junior researchers, and engaging continuously in professional development. In exchange, employers and funders should provide a stimulating research environment, treat researchers as professionals, offer family-friendly working conditions, improve the stability of employment contracts, and provide fair access to social security benefits.

The charter's sister document, the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers, focuses on countering discrimination and bias and endeavors to propagate pan-European standards for fair, open, and transparent hiring. For example, the code of conduct calls for institutions to set guidelines for the recruitment of postdocs that limit the duration of such contracts and consider them as a transition phase to a long-term career.

Neither the charter nor the code of conduct is legally binding; instead, institutions have been invited to endorse them voluntarily. So far, about 1500 institutions in more than 35 countries have done so. Of these, more than 200 have gone further, working to translate these good intentions into better practices in a process overseen by the European Commission. The Human Resources Strategy for Researchers (HRS4R) urges institutions to analyze their policies and practices and prepare and publicly release an action plan. In acknowledgement of such efforts, the commission has awarded these institutions the “HR Excellence in Research” label, which they can lose should they fail to report sufficient progress every 4 years.

Tangible improvements

Some countries have improved more than others. The United Kingdom had a head start: An early form of the U.K. Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers was signed by all universities there in 1996, long before the charter and code were created. Still, the European effort helped push the issues forward there. “It has not been difficult to engage U.K. universities in this process,” said Janet Metcalfe, head of Vitae, a U.K. program that leads the implementation of the concordat, at the anniversary event in Brussels last month. Ninety-one institutions in the United Kingdom have won the “HR Excellence in Research” label, more than in any other country.

Martina Marin-Dobrincic

Martina Marin-Dobrincic

Courtesy of Martina Marin-Dobrincic

These efforts have translated into tangible improvement in the lives of early-career researchers, Jorge says. “In my time, if you had a bad supervisor, you had a really tough time,” he explains. “Nowadays you have defense mechanisms. You can change supervisor, and the training to prepare you for the next job is no longer dependent on your supervisor.”

Changes can be felt even in countries that don’t perform as well overall. In Portugal—Jorge’s home country—“the few institutions that have applied [the charter and code of conduct] … are really doing a better job at providing good working conditions,” he says.

The charter and code of conduct have also given scientists' groups in Europe more clout to initiate changes from the bottom up, says Jorge, who in 2010 cofounded ANICT, an association defending the interests of doctoral researchers in Portugal. And during the negotiation of Spain's 2011 science law, the Federation of Young Researchers used the charter and code to convince “different parliamentary groups [to] include an amendment requesting that doctoral researchers get contracts,” says Elena Capel, the group's spokesperson, in an e-mail to Science Careers. The amendment passed, and as a result, “in Spain, working conditions have improved for doctoral researchers.”

Glaring gaps

The adoption of the charter and code of conduct has been uneven, however. Some countries lag, including France and Germany; in each country, only two institutions have signed up for HRS4R. (Insiders say, however, that things are improving in France and that German institutions are preparing to join the process en masse.)

Pat O’Connor

Pat O’Connor

Courtesy of Pat O’Connor

Even in countries that are ahead of the pack, recruitment is a flashpoint; researchers still complain that nepotism, sexism, and localism are rife. Job ads sometimes request language knowledge that excludes international candidates, says Martina Marin-Dobrincic, a Ph.D. researcher studying material physics at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. “The highest level of local language skills is not absolutely necessary for teaching maths,” for example, contends Marin-Dobrincic, a native from Croatia. (Both Marin-Dobrincic and Jorge are members of Voice of the Researchers, a group formed by the European Commission in 2012 to create direct communication channels between European scientists and policymakers.)

Pat O'Connor, a sociology professor at the University of Limerick in Ireland, says that job descriptions and hiring processes are often designed so that only a few known people fit the requirements. The charter and code of conduct's promotion of open, transparent, merit-based hiring amounts to “window-dressing,” she says, adding that they perpetuate arrangements that discourage women. The wording of the charter and code of conduct doesn't recognize that “universities are male-dominated organizations where people recruit people like themselves.” O'Connor is involved in a EU-funded research project called Female Empowerment in Science and Technology Academia.

“There have been tiny baby steps, but if you're talking about a European charter and code, you want to do a lot better,” O'Connor says. More enforcement is also needed, Marin-Dobrincic adds; today, there is little the commission can do if a researcher complains of unfair recruitment practices.

Using the charter to make career decisions

By pushing for institutional changes, the European Commission expects to make institutions in Europe more attractive to researchers. “If your employer or funder has endorsed the Charter & Code, you can be confident” that the institution recognizes and enhances your rights, respects your work-life balance, and follows transparent recruitment procedures, the commission says on its website.

Nicolas Israël

Nicolas Israël

Courtesy of Nicolas Israël

But researchers themselves are less certain. Subscribing to the charter and code of conduct is a sign of good intentions, but “it's not a fool-proof measure,” Jorge says. The most important criterion when choosing an institution for your next career move, he says, should be the supervisor, followed by the scientific reputation of the institution and then the research topic. “The charter and code and HR badge would come fourth.”

Marin-Dobrincic is even more cautious. “There are institutions that like to give themselves medals,” she says. They subscribe to the principles to boost their images, but, because the charter and code of conduct are not binding, their policies and practices may not match the intentions, she says. To choose the right research job, “I will not rely on a logo. I will talk to researchers” already in place to get candid views on the working conditions that a prospective employer provides.

“Things are not going to change from one day to the next,” admits Nicolas Israël, a social sciences researcher in Paris and a member of the expert group advising the commission on HRS4R. The commission takes the career concerns of young scientists seriously, but “there's a gap between the urgency of the situation [for them] and the recommendations we are trying to lay on institutions in a diplomatic manner,” he says. The goal, he adds, is to attract wary institutions into an amenable system.

Things may change faster under Horizon 2020, the European Union's 7-year research funding program that started last year. Article 32 of the grant agreement says that Horizon 2020 funding recipients must “take all measures” to implement the charter and code. This is only a “best effort obligation,” in the agreement’s own wording, and compliance will be checked after a grant is paid rather than as a precondition to win funding—but Israël considers this significant progress.

The commission's expert group is working on beefing up the external evaluation of those institutions that received the HR award for next year. “The [HRS4R] award is about acknowledging commitment,” Israël says. “Now we also have to certify results.”