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For supporting postdocs, the U.K. is helping to lead the way—but more progress is needed

U.K. funders and principal investigators (PIs) need to step up to usher in more profound cultural changes to support early-career researchers. That is one of the main conclusions of an independent 10-year review of the U.K. Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, a nonbinding agreement that codifies principles to foster better employment and training for postdocs. Signatories include the major U.K. research funders and umbrella organizations representing the country’s universities and research institutions. The challenges, however, are threefold: shifting deeply-held values in academia, devising realistic solutions, and enforcing broad implementation.

Originally launched in 1996 and last updated in 2008, the concordat details the responsibilities of postdocs and their employers when it comes to employment conditions and career development. According to the new report—which the concordat’s steering group commissioned from an international panel of experts and published last week—the agreement “has had an important role in improving the culture” and “fuelled the creation of innovative activities to support researchers.” (In the concordat, and often in the United Kingdom, “researchers” and “research staff” primarily refer to researchers on short-term contracts, mainly postdocs.)

However, progress is inconsistent and hasn’t gone far enough, the report continues. To that end, the report includes recommendations for revamping the concordat. In particular, the revised concordat should clarify the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders, highlight the importance of supporting scientific independence and nonacademic careers, and outline potential carrots and sticks for PIs and institutions in an effort to further drive implementation. The steering group is now working on an updated version of the concordat based on the recommendations and future consultation with stakeholders, expected to be released in spring of 2019.

Such updates “would definitely represent an improvement,” says Miguel Jorge, a lecturer in chemical engineering at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. Jorge, who was not involved in developing the concordat or conducting the review, has long advocated for early-career researchers across Europe, most recently with his work on the Bratislava Declaration of Young Researchers.

However, “the divergence between principles and practice has severely plagued” the concordat, Jorge adds. He also notes similar challenges for the 2005 European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers.

To date, there are no specific rules for enforcing the concordat. The U.K. career development organization Vitae, which manages implementation, conducts regular surveys of researchers and PIs to track progress. Institutions can also apply for a European quality stamp, based on conducting an internal analysis and publishing an implementation plan, as part of the European Charter and Code for Researchers. But, as the report states, “[s]ome institutions appear to be insincere in implementing the Concordat, or are ‘paying lip service’ to reporting or monitoring mechanisms.”

“The fact that there is no enforcement mechanism or minimum standards makes implementation too fragmented to make a significant impact on researchers’ careers,” says Luis Alvarez, a senior postdoctoral scientist who also manages a cell imaging core facility at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at the University of Oxford. Alvarez, who was not involved in the concordat or the review, is also a director of the grassroots International Consortium of Research Staff Associations.

Even so, revisiting and revising the concordat offers an important opportunity to continue advocating for culture change and pushing the status quo. “The U.K. concordat, like the European Charter and Code, is a very important document, mostly because it sets a benchmark for working conditions of early-career researchers,” Jorge says. As the report notes, such initiatives are rare. For example, although the concordat and new report in many ways echo the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s recent biomedical workforce report, the U.S. effort does not involve sign-on from the many relevant stakeholders. “In many aspects, the U.K. is leading the way in terms of career development of researchers,” Jorge says. “However, important challenges still remain.”

A mixed picture

In terms of progress made in the last decade, the report points to the fact that today’s postdocs have better access to training and mentoring programs, performance appraisals, and career advice. Early-career researchers are also more visible, thanks to increased representation on institutional boards and committees and “the proliferation of research staff associations,” the report notes.

The most positive change has been in the provision of transferable skills training and career development programs, Jorge says. “In the past, Ph.D. students and postdocs were rarely trained in anything not directly relevant to their research, whereas now that is the norm,” he says. Increased recognition of different skillsets has “significantly broadened th[e] career prospects” of early-career researchers.

But the concordat should do more to address the challenges that research staff face, the report’s authors conclude. At the heart of the recommendations is the idea that postdocs need more support to develop independence, and that PIs have a direct responsibility in this. Recognizing the potential for conflicting interests, the authors want PIs and postdocs to engage in open conversations about their research and career development goals. The authors would also like to see PIs support postdocs in developing their own research ideas and accumulating track records of independence. Postdocs should be entitled to spend 20% of their contracted time on professional and career development, including working on independent research and exploring activities outside academia, the report recommends. Funding agencies should also allow postdocs to serve as co-PIs.

To help enforce change, the authors want universities to amend their processes and policies to raise awareness of the concordat, give PIs people management training, and assess and reward the involvement of PIs in mentoring and development appraisals. Funders, too, “have a crucial role to play,” the authors write. The panel would like to see funding bodies “consider the development of researchers as a vital part of the assessment of all research grant proposals,” for example by requiring that PIs submit career development plans for postdocs as part of funding proposals. The authors also encourage funders to consider whether an applicant’s institution has earned the European “quality stamp”—so far the most effective driver of change—when making funding decisions. Amid the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the possibility that the United Kingdom could lose access to this European award, they encourage the concordat’s steering group to consider other approaches to ensure that the United Kingdom at least keeps up with European standards as well.

The recommended mechanisms to promote job stability and offer opportunities for career progression are encouraging, Jorge says. “However, they do their best to improve things within the current funding paradigm,” which mostly relies on short-term contracts, he adds. What is needed is a true shift from funding projects to funding people, he says. “Unless funding agencies buy into these principles, there is no chance of success.”

Alvarez has similar concerns about the recommendations around recognizing nonacademic careers as valid professional destinations. “Better career advice and support for nonacademic careers are great in principle but there are no funds or mechanisms to drive implementation,” Alvarez says.

But the career development of researchers doesn’t solely lie in the hands of the institutions, funders, and PIs. Although the report and its recommendations mostly focus on what employers and funders can and should do to help researchers develop their careers, the concordat also details how researchers can help themselves. Postdocs should take the lead in discussing and identifying their professional needs and career aspirations and seeking opportunities to fulfill them, including by making use of the 10 days of training already offered by institutions, the authors state. Above all, as the report states, “research staff should recognise that the primary responsibility for managing and pursuing their career is theirs.”

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