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Ministers respond to early stage research demands

Would any of our current systems have funded a young Albert Einstein or a Marie Sklodowska-Curie? The question was posed to the informal meeting of the Council of Ministers responsible for Competitiveness (Research) under the incoming Slovak Presidency of the Council of the European Union, last month by excellent young researchers.

The ministers from the 28 EU member states and European Free Trade Association countries under the leadership of the Slovak Republic’s Minister of Education, Science, Research and Sport, Peter Plavcan, and the European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas, discussed policies to create better conditions to attract young researchers at European and national level and prepare proposals to create a more effective system in the EU to support them.

Central to the discussion was a presentation by top early stage researchers of the Bratislava Declaration of Young Researchers, drawn up in June, which calls on the European Union and its member states to recognise the importance of young researchers in Europe.

Ten excellent young researchers from six European countries – Ireland, Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Spain and Poland – who had helped shape the declaration joined the discussion, which Moedas described as “one of the most interesting” he had participated in.

The declaration presents a summary of ambitions, problems and solutions in the field of research at all levels – from secondary schools to postgraduate posts. For example, it proposes introducing individual grants for researchers on the basis of their ideas for innovation, and talks of the possibility of mobility between the private and public sectors.

The declaration calls on member states and the European Commission to recognise the special role young researchers play in science, development, innovation and economic growth in Europe.

It says “great ideas and ability are divorced of age, gender or nationality” and aspires to enable “great people” to realise their ideas to understand and improve the world; achieve sustainable and transparent career trajectories; work in a diverse, collaborative, inter-disciplinary, open and ethical research environment; and find a healthy work-life balance.

Each of the four “aspirations” are further elaborated in the wording of the declaration, calling for reforms. Explicitly, they call on funding agencies to radically reorganise funding streams and empower young researchers, enabling them to pursue their ideas.

The current “economically oriented, impact-focused, bureaucratic system is not compatible with fresh ideas and fresh thinking that young people have”, they claim, asking: “Would any of our current systems have funded a young Einstein or a Marie Sklodowska-Curie?”

They further call for employment stability and explicit criteria for career progression, arguing that the proportion of young researchers on short-term contracts is unacceptable and is negatively affecting the quality and impact of the science they are doing.

They recommend urgently widening participation in European research with regard to gender, ethnic background, disability, nationality and geography, calling for increased diversity recruitment. To this end they propose an “EU-wide equality and diversity charter” that could be a prerequisite for access to EU funding.

They cite the example of the UK Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network), a charter established by the British Equality Challenge Unit in 2005, which recognises and celebrates good practice towards the advancement of gender equality representation, progression and success for all as a project “that has positively changed things”.

The 10 young researchers are urging the European Commission and member states “to facilitate and equally reward diverse forms of mobility” including through “inter-sectoral, interdisciplinary and virtual mobility”, arguing that the current system only values geographic mobility.

Challenges and obstacles

The Slovak Presidency presented the declaration and invited the ministers to discuss the main challenges and obstacles for young researchers in the EU and how these should be addressed to make the research career more attractive.

The Slovak Presidency also asked which follow-up actions and measures could be taken at European and national levels.

The ministers concluded that measures to support young researchers, increase their mobility, participation of women in research and more investment in research would increase the attraction of scientific careers and enhance the innovative environment.

“We are convinced that young and talented people are the driving force of development, innovation and economic growth in Europe,” said Plavcan.

Caroline Lynn Kamerlin, who heads the computational biochemistry group at the department of cell and molecular biology at Uppsala University in Sweden and is one of the 10 researchers who signed the declaration, stressed the need for open competition.

She told University World News that at present in Sweden there is a heated debate over claims that universities are filling vacancies with scientists already working at the institutions.

She said: “It is crucial for young researchers to work within a merit-based system where realistic career-progression rules are applied equally.

“Through an open recruitment procedure, my department has created a vibrant international working environment. With our declaration, our aim is to raise awareness among decision-makers. We have had excellent support so far, and I am optimistic that the declaration can take advantage of this momentum to make a real difference.”

Existing initiatives

But Dr Thomas Jørgensen, Head of Unit at the European University Association, said the statement did not seem to take account of existing initiatives.

He said: “I do not think that anyone with knowledge of research policies doubts the importance of cultivating and retaining the talents among early stage researchers (probably a more appropriate term than 'young').

“We have had European policies such as the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers, and a very hands-on implementation through the HR Excellence in Research logo, and the statement at this point seems strangely detached from all these initiatives.”

He argued that a balance has to be struck between making academic research careers attractive and promoting a spirit of entitlement and that the statement leans towards the latter by conveying a 'give me the money and leave me alone' attitude.

It would be more interesting to see where policies could be changed to “better ensure attractive careers as well as meritocracy and accountability”, he said.

Dr Katrien Maes, Chief Policy Officer of the League of European Research Universities, said LERU welcomed the declaration.

“Early-stage researchers need to be given opportunities to pursue their own ideas and to become independent investigators. Transparent and merit-based hiring and promotion processes are essential; they must be commonplace,” she told University World News.

Unrealistic

But she was critical of the sense in the declaration that ‘everything is broken everywhere’. She said that is not the case; there are big differences within Europe and between universities and one of the challenges was how to learn from existing good practice.

She said the declaration’s criticism of “impact-focused bureaucratic” systems was unrealistic. Accountability, assessment and performance indicators were here to stay. It was more a case of ensuring that these are not stifling the intellectual curiosity and creativity that are so important to researchers.

She pointed out, too, that the claim that researchers do not enjoy the same employment rights or conditions that other young professionals enjoy was not correct.

“It is a difficult world for all young professionals nowadays – with a few exceptions – with short contracts and insecure positions as the norm,” she said. “But that doesn't mean there aren't wrong situations that need fixing: What is really important is to give all early-career professionals good, thorough career counselling and honest, realistic perspectives.”

The declaration will be submitted for adoption at the Competitiveness Council (Research) on 29 November 2016 in Brussels.
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