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A time limit on postdoctoral contracts: The French experience

Credit: Jean-Claude Saget

Driven by the excitement of his project, and supported by a constant stream of funding, Cyril Catelain was fully absorbed by his postdoctoral work. Starting in 2007, in the same French Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) lab where he did his Ph.D., Catelain worked to harness the potential of embryonic stem cells for treating cardiac diseases. It took 5 years of testing to identify cells that, given the right conditions, would develop into healthy cardiac cells when injected into a mouse heart. He spent another couple of years developing and validating the technique and then working on filing a patent. “I was head-on into my project. … I didn’t notice time going by,” Catelain says.

Then suddenly, in 2012, for Catelain as for many other postdocs in France, time became a career-breaking issue. A new law ordered French public employers to offer stable employment to workers after 6 years of short-term contracts, through the opening of a new route of recruitment. It backfired, spreading havoc in the careers of young scientists, who not only gained little access to the new stable positions promised by the law but also soon found it nearly impossible to renew their short-term contracts.

The closer we get to 6 years, the more complicated it becomes for them, and many of them lose the desire to really invest themselves into their work, because they see that it will lead to nothing.

Guillaume Bossis

The odds of getting a permanent, civil servant position at a French university or public research organization through the traditional route are low so postdocs are left with few alternatives: Go abroad, leave academic research, or be unemployed. As the collective Les Intermittents de la Recherche wrote in a blog entry a couple of years after the introduction of the new law, “we break projects and people in full flight. This law, which was supposed to absorb part of the job instability, in the end has had worsening effects on the personal and professional conditions of short-term employees, who are excluded from public research and fired as soon as they have acquired sufficient experience to be autonomous in their work.”

Changing rules

A little more than a decade ago, postdocs were rare in France, in part because the traditional mode of recruitment at universities and public research organizations allowed researchers to get permanent positions at a much younger age than in most other countries. It worked like this: After finishing a Ph.D., a French researcher would spend a few years abroad and then come home to join the laboratory of a senior researcher. Then they would gain independence as they rose through the ranks. In those days, laboratories received most of their research funding directly from their host institutions, and that funding usually was sufficient to provide stability.

French street protest

French street protest

Credit: Jean-Claude Saget

Things started to change when, in 2005, the newly created French National Research Agency introduced short term, competitive research funding, in line with most other countries. It became common to staff projects with postdocs and technicians, leading to an explosion in the number of young scientists employed on short-term contracts. Today, France is estimated to have 50,000 scientists working on short-term contracts. 

In an effort to reduce job instability across the public sector, in March 2012 the French government introduced the Loi Sauvadet, which was supposed to limit how long people can work on short-term contracts by moving them after 6 years to more stable, open-ended contracts. A similar law already existed in France, but before the Loi Sauvadet, every time a young researcher signed a new contract with a new employer—which could happen even when staying in the same lab, thanks to French laboratories’ multiple affiliations and funding sources—the counter was reset. With the Loi Sauvadet, the government made it clear that now, after 6 years on short-term contracts, a scientist’s most recent employer was legally obligated to offer stable employment, explains Alain Trautmann, a biologist at the Institut Cochin in Paris.

The problem arose in the way the law was interpreted and applied, Trautmann says. Fearing they would soon be forced to offer many open-ended positions, universities and research organizations took drastic preventive action that made it difficult for young scientists to extend short-term contracts beyond even 3 years, Trautmann says. Many of those postdocs had sufficient funding to keep them going for another couple of years, adds Trautmann, who calls those early days of the application of the Loi Sauvadet “anarchical” and “aberrant.”

Guillaume Bossis

Guillaume Bossis

Courtesy of Guillaume Bossis

Things have stabilized over the last couple of years; institutions are now allowing short-term contracts to run closer to the 6-year limit, Trautmann says. But even today, scientists “are fired after 5 years at the CNRS”—the French national research agency—“so the research organizations or universities won’t be obliged to give them an open-ended contract, which very much complicates their lives and the lives of the laboratories,” says Guillaume Bossis, a CNRS biologist at the Institute of Molecular Genetics of Montpellier.

The main thing that prevents open-ended contracts from being offered is that they do not fit well with the traditional French science system. In France, universities and public research organizations have long employed scientists in permanent positions through civil service contracts that must be won in nationwide, annual competitions. The new, open-ended contracts promised by the law represent a nontraditional route to stable employment in France, one that bypasses nationwide competitions and is based on seniority rather than merit. This has made universities and public research organizations—and much of the scientific community—uneasy. Stagnant budgets have added to the reluctance of institutions to include new staff onto their payrolls via the new Loi Sauvadet–mandated route. “Neither the universities nor the public research organizations want to offer these open-ended contracts,” Bossis says.

It is difficult to estimate how many of the 50,000 young scientists have suffered because of the new law, but it is clear that it truncated the academic careers of many. As for the young scientists who had already accumulated enough seniority to be entitled to an open-ended contract, very few actually got one, Trautmann says. He estimates that within the CNRS, only 5% of several dozen eligible scientists got stable positions. In some places, young scientists took legal action. At INSERM, for example, there have been four legal cases brought by individual scientists, three of which led to positive outcomes for the scientists, Catelain says. The last one, which he brought last year, is ongoing. INSERM declined to comment on the cases.

Few alternatives

The new time limit puts great pressure on young scientists to succeed in academia—fast. Because of the new law, “they are motivated to move their project forward as quickly as possible to be able to win a civil servant position, but research takes time and one cannot easily predict at what pace it will go—and so to have a barrier like that is more demotivating than motivating,” Bossis says. “The closer we get to 6 years, the more complicated it becomes for them, and many of them lose the desire to really invest themselves into their work, because they see that it will lead to nothing.”

Alain Trautmann

Alain Trautmann

Courtesy of Alain Trautmann

Of course, some go on to win permanent civil service positions, but not many: Such positions have been in decline over the last decade. According to a 2014 analysis by the National Committee of Scientific Research (CoNRS), which advises the CNRS on science policy issues and participates in the recruitment of young researchers, the CNRS alone has lost more than 800 permanent positions between 2002 and 2012. Currently, the only positions coming open are those freed up by retirement, and the age pyramid is such that fewer and fewer positions are expected, Trautmann says. The CoNRS estimates that the number of CNRS researchers, engineers, and technicians retiring per year will decline by 38% between 2012 and 2016, with the number of retiring university researchers declining by 30% between 2012 and 2017. There are so many employees on short-term contracts today that “given the number of [civil service] positions available, very few of them will be able to have jobs” within academia in France, Bossis says.

Consequently, many decide to go abroad to pursue their academic careers, but that isn’t always an option, Bossis says. “For postdocs, it is often more difficult to go abroad, because they are older, so in general they already have a family; they have a partner who has a job that isn’t necessarily in research,” he explains.

A possible alternative is to do research in industry but, as in many other developed countries, big companies in France have been shedding staff in recent years, in the pharmaceutical sector in particular, Trautmann says. To make things worse, in certain fields, including biology, French industry hasn’t traditionally welcomed Ph.D.-holders, preferring engineers trained in the prestigious Grandes Ecoles, Bossis adds.

Sciences en Marche street protest (Click the image to enlarge)

Sciences en Marche street protest (Click the image to enlarge)

Credit: Jean-Claude Saget

Some young scientists leave research altogether for careers in science communication, journalism, editing, and school teaching. Even very good people are leaving science now, Trautmann says. “These are things you wouldn’t see before. When people had a good university curriculum and loved research, … they used to continue. But now they say it would not be reasonable for them to do so, given the careers prospects.”

Before they land on their feet, many will experience a period of unemployment. According to the CoNRS report, in 2007 the unemployment rate among young researchers was 10%, and that rate likely has increased since.

Some research organizations, like CNRS, are trying to mobilize to tackle the issue. Since April 2014, CNRS has been collaborating with the French employment agency and the ABG-L’intelli’agence, which promotes the recruitment of Ph.D.-holders in industry, to monitor the situations of short-term employees and support them at a national level, a CNRS spokesperson wrote in an e-mail to Science Careers.  

Demanding solutions

The scientists who rallied around the cause of postdocs—a large fraction of France’s scientific community—believe that what is needed are more civil service positions for scientists. A petition introduced last June by the CoNRS—Trautmann was a member—demanded the creation of a massive multiyear employment plan for young scientists and measures to promote the employment of Ph.D.-holders in the private sector; it gathered more than 18,000 signatures in 4 months. In October, Sciences en Marche, a national protest movement—Bossis is a founder and spokesman—ran a 3-week march on Paris that echoed those demands.

Despite its negative effects, the Loi Sauvadet is not likely to be revoked anytime soon. Although it creates a lot of problems for postdocs and forces many of them to leave, the law is well intentioned, and without it, “young scientists would stay on short-term contracts for life,” Bossis argues. The solution is to offer everyone a decent shot at a civil servant position, he says.

Having failed last year to secure a civil servant position at INSERM, and being determined to continue to pursue his passion for research, Catelain is now unemployed as he awaits the outcome of his legal action. The situation, he says, is rather hard to take. “What is difficult psychologically is to tell yourself, ‘Damn, I have been working full-on in a project that has been bearing fruit for years, and I am being thrown in a ditch,’ ” he says. “Because of the law, … after 6 years, if you haven’t managed to publish sufficiently to win a permanent position, you are a little condemned.”