SPAIN: Young researchers wary of new proposals

Young researchers in Spain are not convinced a draft Law of Science published recently will improve their working conditions or career prospects. Gathered at the seventh Young Researchers Days in Barcelona on 25-27 February, many had more questions and criticisms of the proposed law than they did praise.

"Although the law refers to the European Charter for Researchers, when you look at the details there are a lot of contradictions," said Cecilia Galindo, President of the Young Researchers' Federation or FJI.

According to the charter, academics should be treated as professional researchers when they start their doctorate. Under the Spanish draft law, this point is only reached during the post-doc period, three years after finishing a doctorate. During these seven years, researchers can be employed under work experience contracts which typically give fewer rights and lower salaries than standard contracts.

They can then be employed under normal five-year contracts, with evaluation after the first three years. "This is positive, it is similar to tenure track in the United States, but it still means you will only get any form of job security later on in your career and even then it will only apply to people who want to lead a research team," said Galindo.

The draft law is intended to replace one dating back to 1986. It aims to improve coordination between regional and central government, increase opportunities for researchers, encourage more cooperation between the private and the public sector and promote technology transfer and internationalisation of the Spanish research system.

Spanish Minister of Science and Innovation Cristina Garmendia said she wants to reach a consensus during the current consultation phase so that the new law "represents a commitment by the whole of society, with a special role for researchers".

The current status of young researchers is ill-defined, with most funded by a confusing range of 'grants' giving few rights even though most do contribute to the work of their departments. Giving them employment contracts is thus seen as a step in the right direction but, for most, the changes do not go far enough.

"This law is trying to give us more stability but where is the incentive for departments to hire the best or attract the best people from outside?" asked Eva Ostergaard, a Danish researcher employed under Spain's Ramón y Cajal programme. "We can do a lot to try and avoid cronyism in selection but if there is no collective incentive to seek excellence, I don't think it will make any difference," she added.

Others such as David Fairen, an FJI member currently doing his post-doc at the University of Edinburgh, believes radical changes in funding are needed to make universities more competitive.

"At the moment, they are funded according to student numbers and this encourages stagnation. In France, if a laboratory doesn't publish, it can be closed down. In the UK, when they are taking on researchers, they ask what fresh ideas you will bring to the team," Fairen said. "Here it is very hierarchical. If you want to start a new line of investigation, often your superiors see you as a threat and won't let you."

Other speakers at the conference in Barcelona were also in favour of a more competitive funding regime for research. "At the moment, different higher education policy-makers are daring to talk about allocating 5% of funding according to results," said Jaume Bertranpetit, Director of the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA). "But until we get to 50% it won't make any difference."

Bertranpetit reported that the Catalan government, which along with Spain's 16 other regional governments has considerable power over higher education policy, is planning to make access to tenure in Catalan research centres dependent on performance.