The Max Planck Society (MPG), Germany's flagship organization for basic research, will improve its support for junior scientists and do away with a stipend system used mostly for foreign Ph.D. students and postdocs that many had decried as unfair because it doesn't include basic social security benefits. The new scheme will cost the society up to €50 million annually.
The measure, officially announced yesterday (English version here), was welcomed by PhDnet, an organization of Ph.D. students at MPG that had been lobbying for change for over a decade. “This step brings young researchers one step closer to the living, social, and work contract standards of Germany,” writes PhDnet spokesman Prateek Mahalwar in an e-mail.
With a €1.6 billion annual budget and 83 institutes spanning the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, MPG employs more than 3400 Ph.D. researchers, 54% of whom are non-German nationals. About one-third of them have a so-called support contract, anchored in a collective wage agreement for Germany's civil servants, that offers many social and legal protections, including public health insurance and child benefits. The remaining two-thirds are on a stipend, which tends to offer more freedom in research and working conditions, but generally comes with less money and fewer benefits.
The distinction has triggered protests, especially because most German Ph.D. students have a contract, while most foreigners work for a stipend. PhDnet began sounding the alarm and lobbying for change in 2003, and in 2012, a group of young researchers launched a petition calling for fair pay. Although MPG has taken small steps to make the system fairer, the inequality became increasingly unacceptable, acknowledges Martin Stratmann, who became president of MPG last year.
Starting on 1 July, MPG wants to give all of its Ph.D. students a support contract—although individual institutes can still "opt out” and offer all of their Ph.D. students a stipend instead. (The society doesn't expect institutes to do so.)
Postdocs will also benefit; an estimated two-thirds of them will be offered an employment contract. The rest are expected to stay for a short period of time only and will receive Max Planck Fellowships as scientific guests. MPG anticipates that it will have to reduce the number of Ph.D. students by 15% and postdocs by 10% as a result of the changes, while the cost of hiring junior researchers goes up by 40%. That money comes from the Pact for Research and Innovation II, a program funded by the federal government and the Länder, or states, which has helped increase MPG’s overall budget by 5% annually between 2011 and 2015.
The changes are going in the “right direction,” because they will narrow the gap between Ph.D. students within MPG and also between them and students at German universities, says Horst Hippler, president of the German Rectors’ Conference.
MPG also issued more detailed guidelines yesterday for the supervision of Ph.D. students that aim to set common standards across disciplines and institutes. Funding for Ph.D. students will be guaranteed for 3 to 4 years, and they will sign an agreement with their supervisor stating the rights and duties of both sides. Students will also be given a second Ph.D. adviser and access to a third, independent person to help in case of conflict. “We aim for the really great students,” Stratmann says—and he hopes the new measures will help lure them to Germany.