Progress, problems with researcher mobility in Europe

There has been significant progress in alleviating obstacles to mobility for researchers in Europe – but advances have been uneven and challenges remain in some countries in the areas of recruitment, researcher skills, working conditions and career opportunities – says a Deloitte Consulting report prepared for the European Commission.

The third annual report of a three-year study includes for the first time a composite index of European Union research excellence compared with that of other major economies, which it says can be seen as a proxy for the attractiveness of Europe for researchers.

“The EU is significantly behind the United States, but well ahead of Japan, South Korea, China, India and Brazil – in descending order.

“Between 2007 and 2012, the level of research excellence in the EU increased by six percentage points to 47.8, and increased in every EU country except Greece. The best-performing EU countries are the Nordic member states, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Belgium, all with scores over 60.”

The Researchers’ Report 2014 was produced by Deloitte Consulting as a part of a three-year monitoring study for the European Union’s directorate general for research and innovation.

An up-to-date picture is painted of the research profession in 38 countries. Researchers are defined as “professionals engaged in the conception or creation of new knowledge, products, processes, methods and systems and also in the management of the projects concerned”. All doctoral candidates are considered to be researchers.

“An open and attractive labour market for researchers is a key priority of the European Research Area where researchers and knowledge can move freely from one country to another,” says the report.

There had been significant progress at the European and national levels in removing or easing some obstacles to mobility, improving PhD training and making research careers more attractive. But progress has been uneven and there are large differences between countries.

In a number of states there is “a lack of open, transparent and merit-based recruitment, where some early-stage researchers are ill equipped for the labour market or where working conditions are relatively poor or where career opportunities are rather limited”.

The report outlines key findings, in categories.

Stock of researchers

There were 1.63 million full-time equivalent researchers in the EU in 2011 compared to 1.49 million in the United States, 660,000 in Japan and 1.32 million in China.

Between 2000 and 2011, the stock of researchers in the EU-28 grew by an annual average greater than 4%. “This was faster than in the US and Japan, but slower than in China,” says the report.

Researchers, however, account for a significantly lower share of the labour force than in the US and Japan, “even if there are indications that the gap is closing”. Also, Europe has “a long way to go before it matches the US, Japan and China in the ratio of business-to-public sector researchers”.

Countries reported a range of measures aimed at training enough researchers to meet national research and development targets, including action plans, new or updated legislation, awareness-raising schemes about research careers, and improvements to the quality and relevance of doctoral training or incentives.

Women in research

“Europe is far from having achieved gender equality in research and therefore from optimising its talent pool. Women still face a glass ceiling,” says the report.

“They outnumber men at the first two levels of tertiary education, but are considerably less likely to occupy a senior academic position, or to sit on decision-making bodies – they are even less likely to head a higher education institution or university.” Only 16% of heads were women in 2010.

There had been some improvement, “but the rate of progress is highly relative given the gap that needs to be closed in most countries”.

Open, transparent and merit-based recruitment

Openness and innovation go hand in hand, the report points out. “Countries with open and attractive research systems are strong performers in terms of innovation.” Recruitment based on merit and academic excellence throughout a career was key for research excellence and optimising research talent.

A number of countries reported taking steps to make recruitment more transparent.

“Nevertheless, many researchers’ perception is that there is still a long way to go. They believe that protectionism and nepotism are still widespread in a number of countries, and that institutions do not have sufficiently open and transparent recruitment practices. The problem appears to be particularly acute in some Mediterranean countries.”

There had been an increase in importance attached to publishing jobs on portals such as EURAXESS Jobs and obtaining the ‘HR Excellence in Research’ logo. Jobs advertised on EURAXESS increased more than five-fold between 2010 and 2013 to more than 40,000.

Several countries had made it compulsory to publish research job vacancies beyond national boundaries (including Austria) or on EURAXESS (including Croatia, Italy and Poland), and a number of countries had national online systems for advertising research positions.

The European Commission is working to produce a recruitment toolkit, including good-practice examples, templates and other material useful for employers of researchers.

Education and training

There had been progress in increasing the stock of researchers and in providing quality training in line with the Principles for Innovative Doctoral Training, or IDTP, endorsed by European ministers.

There had been significant take-up of the IDTP in several countries and a working group of the European Research Area, or ERA, had developed a roadmap for further action.

A range of measures to attract people into science and provide quality training had been taken, including regulatory and policy measures, action plans, tax and financial incentives, mentoring and professional development, improved structuring of doctoral programmes, and placements in the private sector.

Between 2000 and 2013 there had been a more than 60% increase in the share of the 30-34 age group who had completed tertiary education (36.8%) and “the EU-28 is well on its way to meeting its 2020 target of 40%”, says the report.

The number of graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM – per thousand population in the 20-29 year age group grew by more than 60% between 2000 and 2011 and by more than three quarters among women. “The increases were more rapid than in the US and Japan.”

During the same period there was growth of more than 60% in new doctoral graduates in the EU, “slightly more than in the US but significantly more than the one third increase in Japan. The number per thousand is slightly lower than in the US but higher than in Japan.”

Working conditions

Research careers presented “a particular challenge” during PhD training and in the early career stages when many researchers are on short, fixed-term contracts or have no contract at all. They are often not covered by social security provisions and benefits.

“Thus career paths appear uncertain and years of pension contributions may be lost,” says the report. Countries reported a range of actions to improve the status of early career researchers.

Career problems could be compounded by poor remuneration and on average, as a percentage of the purchasing power adjusted salary of the best paying countries, “non-European countries pay better than the EU”, the study found. Among the best paying countries were the US, Brazil, Switzerland, Cyprus, the Netherlands, Ireland and Belgium.

European countries continued to support the Charter & Code that aims to improve researchers’ working conditions. More than 480 organisations from 35 countries had endorsed the principles underlying the C&C, many of them membership or umbrella organisations. Award of the ‘HR Excellence in Research’ logo recognised institutional progress in implementing C&C principles, and 180 organisations had received the logo.

Collaboration with industry

Although interaction with the private sector was vital for encouraging exploitation of research results, moving into the private sector for a short period during PhD studies was “still very much the exception, even though it is perceived as potentially beneficial for a researcher’s career, access to funding and the exploitation of research results”.

“Researchers appear to be held back by lack of preparation in areas such as intellectual property and knowledge transfer. As a result, levels of co-publication between the public and private sector are much lower than in the US or Japan,” says the report.

Many countries are promoting partnerships between universities, research institutions and companies, and measures to improve the skills of doctoral researchers. There are joint projects, exploitation programmes, research traineeships in companies, inter-sectoral mobility programmes, industrial PhDs, and combining teaching and private sector research.

“Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, France, Greece and Norway have all taken steps in the last couple of years to create two-way flows between industry and academia, generally with the aim of bridging the gap between research and market applications,” the report says.

Mobility and international attractiveness

Mobility is a core concept of the ERA and is often associated with excellence, dynamic networks, improved scientific performance, improved knowledge and technology transfer, improved productivity “and ultimately enhanced economic and social welfare”, says the report.

“Evidence shows that the researcher population is highly mobile internationally. Around 31% of EU researchers in the post-PhD phase have worked abroad (EU or worldwide) as researchers for more than three months at least once during the last 10 years.”

Most researchers perceived the mobility experience as positive: 80% of internationally mobile researchers felt mobility had a positive impact on their research skills; more than 60% believed mobility had strongly increased their research output; and 55% thought career progression had improved as a result of their mobility.

But 40% perceived mobility as negatively impacting on two aspects – job options, and progression in remuneration. “The reasons behind this are as yet unclear but include issues such as a lack of recognition of mobility and ‘forced’ mobility,” says the report.

The share of non-EU doctoral candidates as a percentage of all PhDs indicates the openness and attractiveness of a research system. “The average share for the EU is 24.2%.”

To overcome remaining barriers to mobility, the European Commission proposed changes to the Scientific Visa Directive and has committed to supporting setting up a pan-European supplementary pension fund for researchers and an insurance scheme.

Measures to remove obstacles to researchers’ mobility include national mobility schemes, for instance the APART programme in Austria, tax incentives (Denmark), non-financial incentives (extended-stay research scholar visa in France) or promoting dual careers, such as the Dual Career Network of universities near the Franco-Swiss-German borders.

The main report is complemented by data annexes, 38 detailed country profiles, around 50 examples of good practices and a set of ‘scorecards’ which provide a quick visual presentation of where countries stand in relation to the main themes.