Intervenção convidada proferida em nome da Federação Mundial dos Trabalhadores Científicos

Europe’s Grand Societal Challenges: The role of Early Stage Researchers

EuroDoc 2013 Conference, Lisbon, 4th-5th April

 

Working conditions for early stage researchers

Frederico G. Carvalho, Vice-President, World Federation of Scientific Workers

Abstract

Research workers in the early stage of their professional life shall be valued as an indispensable cornerstone of the construction of a brighter future for the peoples of Europe. A number of reasons that justify this assertion are discussed below. Much will depend on the conditions under which the young or early stage researchers are engaged and are able to work. Whether adequate stimuli are provided and whether there is encouragement or impediment to exercise their creativity.The WFSW views researchers whether graduate or post-graduate, as workers in their own right, subject to the rights and obligations as defined in the general labour law. This question of paramount social importance is discussed. Attention is given to the recommendations contained in the European Charter and Code of Conduct for the recruitment of researchers and to the actual compliance with its set of good practices. A scrutiny is carried out of Programme “Horizon 2020” texts relevant to the subject under consideration.

Reference is made to the social and personal costs caused by tabling wrong incentives in Science that involve hiring significant numbers of temporary scientists without real career prospects.A few remarks will be made concerning current funding mechanisms, career structure and the concepts of “excellence” and “competitiveness”.

 

Introductory remarks

On behalf of the World Federation of Scientific Workers let me warmly greet the organisers of the EURODOC 2013 Conference and thank you for the invitation to address the Conference.

The question of the role of Early Stage Researchers in the present context of Europe’s Grand Societal Challenges, is indeed one of utmost interest. It is in fact a decisive question considering the opportunities that only science and technology can offer to successfully overcome the dangers impending on the future survival of our species in a crisis-ridden world. The existing scientific workforce largely composed of young researchers is not numerous enough to tackle the challenges that lie before us and this is indeed acknowledged by a significant number of high level decision makers and leaders in most EU member nations. Their policies however do not agree with the circumstances of our present needs.

 

Prevailing European R&D policy paradigms

On the subject of R&D as in other areas the dominant concern reflected in the EU Commission papers and shared by the leadership of the main industrialised countries is that of developing an environment that is favourable to the operation of the business enterprise sector. All other considerations are essentially set aside. Public policies are designed to serve this purpose by providing a pool of a highly qualified scientific workforce at the disposal of the private sector at the lowest possible cost. This latter aspect in particular leads to the growing precariousness of jobs although it is becoming slowly apparent that this is incompatible with the necessary consolidation of a scientific basis capable of ensuring the steady and swift development of new knowledge required to create the conditions of a sustainable future for humankind. This is particularly dangerous as far as basic research — the sometimes called “blue sky research” is concerned.

Underlying the so-called “Lisbon Strategy”, (quote) “(…) was the realisation that, in order to enhance its standard of living and sustain its unique social model, the EU needed to increase its productivity and competitiveness in the face of ever fiercer global competition, technological change and an ageing population” (end quote)[1].The European leaders decided that the adopted strategy was indispensable for our old Europe (quote again) "to become the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010 capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion and respect for the environment". The way the societal role of R&D is contemplated in the new Horizon 2020 EU Framework Programme does not depart from this philosophy, rather accentuates it.

More than wishful thinking this routine discourse is dressed up as a fairy tale apt to mislead public opinion. Better jobs, greater social cohesion and respect for the environment, may be achieved with greater probability through global co-operation than through fierce competition for a place in the world podium of leadership in the practices of “business as usual”.

 

The question of the scientific workforce

Everybody that is anybody in the decision circles agrees at least formally that “more and adequately skilled researchers will be needed in Europe”. For the tree of science to bear fruits it is necessary that a dedicated workforce is there that includes researchers and research personnel of different skills that closely cooperate with researchers.

 Some of you may recall the objective set by the European Commission in 2003 of a major increase in the total number of researchers in the member states[2]. The number put forward was 700 thousand at a time when according to Eurostat estimations the actual number of active researches in FTE was near 1.2 million in the EU at 27. The additional 700 000 researchers deemed necessary would come on top of the expected replacement of the ageing workforce in research. This statistically proven ageing further underlines the importance of promoting the employment of early stage researchers. In any case, to meet the above target without a deterioration of researcher’s working conditions it is imperative to increase the expenditure in research and technological development for which the target had been set at 3% of the Union’s GDP by 2010 of which 2/3 or 2% would come from the Business Enterprise Sector. Actually the official Eurostat numbers show that the number of researchers in FTE in 2010 was 1,6 million while the expenditure has been stagnant around 2% of the GDP for more than a decade with only one half from the Business Enterprise Sector. The 3% target has now been delayed until 2020. As to the number  of researchers the increase although considerable of about 400 thousand, lagged well behind the set target of 700 thousand. Also the numbers show that the expenditure per capita of researcher declined significantly between 2003 and 2010. On-going negotiations around the Multiannual Financial Budget for 2014-2020 can bring some comfort to the situation as described but cannot significantly compensate the decline in the per capita expenditure that has taken place in the last decade. One can arrive at this conclusion if one considers that the Union yearly average per capita expenditure of FTE researcher amounted to about 150 thousand euros in 2010. In this respect, there are large asymmetries between member states. In Portugal, for one, the latest numbers available (2011) indicate a FTE researcher per capita R&D expenditure of just 48 thousand euros.

 Research careers and employment stability

In the course of the last decade and again in the beginning of the present decade one finds in the Commission documents repeated references to the need to improve career development and career prospects for researchers in Europe. Enhanced and more visible career prospects — they say — will encourage more young people to embark on careers in research.[3]

I wish to underline the fact that the World Federation of Scientific Workers has kept as permanent items in her agenda the all-important questions of working conditions of young researchers, the specific situation of women researchers and the status of researchers in general. The Federation gave a significant contribution to the drafting of the 1974 UNESCO "Recommendation on the Status of Scientific Researchers" a document whose importance and validity remain unchanged. Already by the middle of the last century and in various opportunities since then, the Federation held  several international Symposia to debate the problems of the research profession. In the Symposium that took place in Lisbon in 2004 a work session was dedicated to “The scientific labour market” and the “Precariousness of science jobs”. Next September at the occasion of its 21st General Assembly  the World Federation organises in collaboration with the Academy of Sciences of the Russian Federation an international one-day open seminar on “Young researchers: status, employment, mobility, and the brain drain” to take place in Nijni-Novgorod.

The 2005 European Charter for Researchers and Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers, is a mere recommendation expressly intended to provide “Member States, employers, funders and researchers with a valuable instrument to undertake, on a voluntary basis, further initiatives for the improvement and consolidation of researchers’ career prospects in the European Union”. It is addressed to the member states recommending that “as they formulate and adopt their strategies and systems for developing sustainable careers for researchers – take duly into account and are guided by the general principles and requirements, referred to as The European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers” as outlined in the Annex to the Recommendation. This is followed however by the disappointing remark that in doing so “they (the member states) should take into account the great diversity of the laws, regulations and practices which, in different countries and in different sectors, determine the path, organisation and working conditions of a career in R&D.” In fact the door is opened to the continuation of all sorts of different understandings of the status of researchers in the labour market, including the non-existence of a effectively structured career. There is a paragraph in the Charter that reads: “Researchers, as well as employers and funders, who adhere to this Charter will also be respecting the fundamental rights and observe the principles recognised by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.” This clearly indicates that a given institution and even an individual researcher is free to consider whether or not to adhere to the recommendations of the Charter. This in fact lays bare the weakness of the Commission´s Recommendation.

Even among those institutions who became signatory of the Charter there are reservations concerning the spirit underlying the Recommendation. A notable case is that of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) that subjects its support of the Charter to certain clarifications. A rather pertinent one has to do with the fact the Charter requires that researchers “ensure that their research is useful and relevant to society”. The DAAD considers however that “this is an unnecessary constraint, incompatible with the principles of freedom of research” adding that “the DAAD will continue to support excellent projects in the area of basic research whose relevance to society and usefulness may not be initially apparent.” This is indeed a laudable position and so should be viewed.

There are reasons to believe that even in aspects that do not have directly funding or budgetary incidences the guiding rules set in the Charter and Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers are not generally respected in practice. This state of things cannot be altered without collective action at the national level carried out by research workers in forms appropriate to each case, that is to say, by those directly interested in improving their working conditions. In the present juncture in Europe and elsewhere, the impact of a serious economic and social crisis is acutely felt in the Higher Education and Research sectors of activity. This shall not be considered an impediment to the development of the necessary efforts to improve the social relevance of scientific research and the condition of researchers especially early stage researchers, for they are the future of research. 

The practice of considering young researchers even post-docs as student’s fortunate enough to live on a fluid fellowship is still the rule in many countries. In reality they are often an indispensable support of a research group whose productivity largely depends on their contribution to a team’s work. They are a low-cost workforce with no guaranty of a stable future. They will have difficulty in finding a permanent home and raising a family. Even after ten or more years of professional work they will not have a contract with the rights and duties stipulated in the labour code that applies to the general worker. They will not have the right to a pension. Where the situation is as described it has to be changed through the combined efforts of the trade unions and professional associations of scientific workers.[4]  

 

Investing in science for the benefit of the planet and our species

A large number of scientific workers in Europe and in the world are employed by large corporations whose interests are generally not coincident with the need to ensure a sustainable future for the planet and their inhabitants. Short term considerations and the imperative of maximizing profits guide their actions rather than seeking solutions to minimize environmental threats. Consumerism and resource exhaustion associated with a paradigm of endless economic growth cannot but lead to violence and war. A disproportionate number of scientific workers looking for a job have no alternative but to work in or for the military establishment where early-stage researchers may be able to participate in cutting edge R&D projects even in basic science subjects. We have here thus the cumulative inducement of a job and of interesting work.

A sustainable society requires however that interaction of man with nature is non-destabilizing. Most of us are aware of the consequences of the intensive and extensive use of technologies that characterize our present life. The present “technological order” associated with an ever growing ecological footprint have dire consequences for the planet Earth. The younger generation of scientific workers must be given the right incentives and offered working conditions susceptible of attracting them to contribute to the elaboration of alternative ways of dealing with the societal challenges facing us. This will not be possible without a net of public R&D institutions focussed on programmes specifically directed to implementing a technology revolution in such areas as energy, food and water, biodiversity, climate change. These will be “life-saving” programmes that require political support and autonomous funding.

 Like the military the civilian research institutions should have an adequate own budget that enables them to recruit with autonomy the necessary research staff including for permanent positions as deemed necessary to carry out the missions assigned to them. The performance of researchers, research teams and research institutions shall be evaluated regularly in a transparent and professional way. The concept of “excellence” is vague and may be dangerous. In Science as in the Sports excellence arises out of a large pool of not so excellent performers that are nonetheless indispensable contributors to the quality of the global system. Co-operation at the global level must be substituted for competitiveness especially when the natural resources of the planet are being depleted and a majority of our fellow humans live in extremely precarious conditions.

....................................................................

[1]  “Lisbon Strategy evaluation document”, Commission Staff Working Document, SEC(2010) 114 final, European Commission, Brussels, 2.2.2010

[2] “Investing in research: an action plan for Europe”, COM(2003) 226 final/2, Communication from the Commission, Brussels, 4.6.2003

[3] Cf. “The European Charter for Researchers. The Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers", Directorate-General for Research, Human resources and mobility (Marie Curie Actions) EUR 21620 (2005)

[4] Jennifer Rohn, “Give postdocs a career, not empty promises”, Nature 471, 7 (2011)