EUROPE: Mobile researchers need better conditions

In the drive to create a hi-tech Europe, the usefulness of researchers is sharply skewed by national regulations and practices that bar easy movement between European Union countries. If there is ever to be a genuine European research effort rather than a score or so of national ones, ways will have to be found of overcoming these barriers, says the League of European Research Universities.

But this is not easily done, according to a paper written for the league by Danny Pieters and Paul Schoukens, social security law professors at Leuven University in Belgium.

Based in Leuven, the league is an association of research-intensive European universities whose members include Cambridge and Oxford, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität of Munich, Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, Stockholm's Karolinska Institutet and Utrecht and Zurich universities.

Pieters and Schoukens found that among chief factors inhibiting movement between countries are the complicated EU coordination regulations, the differing employment status of researchers, variations in pension provisions and the lack of accessible, transparent information. The position is even worse for third country researchers who want to work and travel within the EU.

To tackle the problem, the paper says there should be improved coordination of the social security needs of internationally mobile researchers, with researchers working at accredited universities or research institutes to be used as a pilot case for all mobile researchers.

Early stage researchers whose professional status is other than that of employee, self-employed or civil servant should be provided with social security protection including health care coverage, family allowances and minimal protection in case of work incapacity.

The interpretation of new EU coordination regulations coming into force this month should be clarified and developed to make sure they are appropriate, and steps taken to ensure that third country national researchers enjoy fully equal treatment to EU researchers.

The paper says second- and third-pillar pensions should be enabled to "better absorb the negative social security consequences of a typical research career". At the same time "a network of independent advisers to provide information and counselling on social security matters tailored to the specific needs of mobile researchers and their employers" should be developed.

The league said its aim was to identify options for action by EU decision-makers although it agreed that there was "limited room for solutions" on the social security front at present. Individual governments jealousy guarded their prerogatives in this sector and researchers had to comply with EU laws for all migrant workers, while the definitions and status of researchers varied from one country to another.

Implementation of the paper's recommendations "will require significant political stamina, an efficient action strategy and a choice of the most appropriate instruments", said the authors.