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Europe: LERU report advocates better research working conditions.

With a new EU research Commissioner about to be appointed and lobbying expected to be underway soon over the shape of the next eighth EU framework programme on research, the League of European Research Universities (LERU) has released a major report "Harvesting talent: strengthening research careers in Europe." It outlines LERU's position on changes in the European research community which it feels are necessary in order to attract the world's strongest and most brilliant new researchers into European university research posts.

"Research and the people trained in it inspire many of the ideas, aspirations and actions that contribute to the vitality of society and its capacity for bold creativity in responding to whatever the future might bring," writes Professor Geoffrey Boulton, the University of Edinburgh professor who authored the report, in his introduction. "It is crucial that some of the best intellects in each generation continue to be attracted to research careers, and are given every opportunity to grow in confidence, capacity, ambition and creativity." The report--based in part on studies conducted by LERU's research career working group - argues that fostering creative people is the key to developing a leading-edge research base. This can explore unconventional ideas and methods, which will lead to breakthroughs to help us deal with the unknown future and challenges ahead, including climate change, food security and a potential energy crisis.

"It is talent more than technology that society or business need from universities," Boulton writes. "The dominant vector through which research-derived understanding is translated into utility in society is not research results but people." The report stresses that offering short-term research contracts and fellowships, (often the most common way for a young researcher to get work), is not enough to keep the world's best minds involved in academic research.

"Although research careers can rarely compete with the salaries of the private sector, it is important that they are seen to offer unique opportunities for well-supported, creative freedom and personal satisfaction," the report explains. "A powerful and internationally competitive research base, essential to the present and future vitality of Europe, depends fundamentally on a strong cohort of highly creative researchers, and therefore on Europe's capacity to attract some of the best minds in each generation, not only from Europe, but also from the global pool of talent."

The report highlights several ways in which European research institutes and universities can improve their employment conditions to attract the brilliant minds they are seeking. These include allowing junior researchers and doctorate students to have more independence and responsibility in their work (rather than acting as 'lab rats' under a strict supervisor), to offering clear advancement opportunities and career development support at the institutions. Funding and the way it is granted to researchers is a key theme throughout the report--and current funding methods are generally dismissed as limiting, uninviting and poorly structured for attracting junior researchers and advancing them into their future academic careers. "University positions are strongly shaped by academic traditions and external funding arrangement, and are frequently not well-adapted to the purposes of the research that they are supposed to support," the report says, highlighting poor funding decisions such as short-term funding for long-term research objectives--actions which hamper the work researchers can achieve during their post.

The report states that "the manner in which money is made available to universities often conspires to undermine their capacity to create a more stable framework for research careers." Few research grants cover the full cost of a research project, many national funding systems base grants on teaching and student numbers rather than research work, and national government funding is often unreliable and subject to change, according to the report. This means university research salaries are often low and are unable to attract the most brilliant candidates from Europe and abroad.

Boulton says the power to solve these chronic problems lie mostly in the hands of national and EU funding bodies, who need to reduce the short-term contracts they offer and focus on larger initiatives, while paying researchers appropriately based on experience and expertise--rather than granting the same amount of money to all researchers regardless of seniority. The report also encouraged careful consideration before offering tenure and other long-term positions, to make sure there is enough funding to support a research employee over time. Apart from conventional funding bodies, Boulton also welcomes funding support from industry partners, as long as the researchers are able to maintain their academic freedom and integrity and are not influenced by the company sponsoring their work.

But along with inadequate funding, the report also criticises chronically poor and inconsistent employment conditions for all European university researchers--junior and senior alike--which often offer little job security, benefits or flexibility due to the number of short-term contracts, one-off stipends and other insecure arrangements that researchers can be obliged to accept. The report is particularly concerned about the lack of provisions for female researchers, who often need even more flexibility if they have children at home. But there are solutions for this mess of employment arrangements, according to the report, to make sure all researchers in Europe are treated equally:

"All post-doctoral researchers should be employed through the university payroll and provided with social security cover and pension entitlements. The use of stipends without provision for social security benefits should be strongly discouraged, and where necessary, supplemented by the institution to ensure that all researchers (domestic and foreign) are provided with equivalent employment conditions," it recommends.

LERU suggests in the report that funding bodies should "put greater emphasis on fellowships, particularly fellowships that have a term beyond three years," praising the European Research Council (ERC) for fostering such positions, that leave room for independence and offer young researchers the freedom to choose the preferred institutions for postings. "If it can be sustained and developed, it augurs well for the future of the European Research Area and its dynamism," the report states, rejecting a suggestion from the president of the European Heads of Research Councils (EUROHORCS) that the ERC should scale back its support for young researchers and leave them to the national funding bodies, so that senior researchers can take advantage of European-wide funding instead. Along with the many funding models for researchers, they also face a variety of career paths and models, which is also cause for confusion among all parties--the researchers, institutions, and funding bodies alike--because every university, national funding body and private sponsor grants funding and positions in different ways. A major part of the LERU report features a set of diagrams outlining typical career paths for researchers at 15 LERU universities across nine European countries--showcasing how differently a researcher's career could turn out depending on where he or she first accepts a job, and in what position. For example, universities in countries such as France, Italy and Sweden often award permanent research jobs at an early stage in a researcher's career, creating difficulties when funding or research goals change and the university must continue to support the employee. Universities in countries such as the UK and Switzerland, however, have opposite problems because they rarely offer more than a series of short-term contracts, even for the most senior researchers, which do not offer much job security. Depending on the situation, such a set-up could mean the university loses its best minds to positions with better benefits and security at other universities or private corporations.

But it is not only individual universities, or even single funding bodies, which must work to solve these problems; Boulton asserts that the role of the European Research Area (ERA) is too narrow, and that many problems arise from limiting research funding and support to high-level academics at senior research institutions. A wide range of less renowned universities across Europe that educate thousands of young intelligent people every year then lose out. "The great comprehensive universities have an absolutely fundamental role to play here, and not merely as 'other actors,'" the report says. "The unique property of comprehensive universities, namely that they encompass the whole range of human knowledge, endows them with a vital role that they must increasingly exploit, of developing deep understanding in a broad setting." Boulton argues that the ERA should be "conceptually linked to the European Higher Education Area" linking all universities and should be part of a larger European knowledge area rather than a stand-alone process. "Concepts of a networked ERA in which the universities are merely research hotels offer a dismal managerial perspective that ignores reality," the report says.

Overall, the report advocates for shared responsibility for research careers in Europe--calling on universities, governments, the ERC and private and public funding bodies to work together. It wants them to take leading roles in fostering positive working conditions where researchers can have the freedom to be creative, explore new and innovative topics, and develop their own careers through secure and attractive research jobs.

"It is vitaL.that there is stronger interaction between stakeholders at both national and European levels if we are to enhance the standing and support for the most important pillar of any research system, namely the quality of the people working in it," Boulton concludes. The report can be viewed in full on the LERU website, at
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Author:Jackson, Emma
Publication:International News
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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