Be a good neighbour and share your bright ideas

September 9, 2005

A new charter for researchers aims to drive the European knowledge economy, writes Lord Sainsbury

Representatives from 35 countries meet at a London conference this week to discuss steps towards transforming the public perception of researchers and the vital role they play. The event, hosted by the UK as part of its presidency of the European Union, has as its focus a new European charter for researchers and a code of conduct for their recruitment.

These initiatives are part of a broader European strategy - the Lisbon agenda - to become the most "dynamic and competitive knowledge economy in the world by 2010". Within this, Europe has set many targets including a European Research Area through the promotion of career mobility, with programmes such as Erasmus in higher education or Marie Curie fellowships in research.

Janez Potoycnik, the Commissioner for Research, is expected to call for member states to use the charter and code to develop an integrated strategy for researcher careers, deliver improved employment and working conditions for researchers throughout Europe, and to work at national and institutional levels to ensure that the research environment in Europe is world class.

The UK has been instrumental in helping to develop the charter and code and will play an important role in their implementation. We have provided key insights through sharing our experiences about careers, including the work stemming from Sir Gareth Roberts's review into science and engineering skills, SET for Success , the development of the concordat for researchers, the code of practice for postgraduate degree programmes and support provided by bodies such as the UK GRAD Programme.

The UK will maintain a strong involvement in European work in this area through the steering group for human resources and mobility, which will oversee the implementation of the charter and code.

The conference, organised by the UK GRAD Programme, the Office of Science and Technology and Research Councils UK, will allow member states to share experiences. Conference participants will agree a joint action plan to embed both the charter and code throughout Europe, with the aim of reporting results to the European Commission by December.

During the UK presidency, we will concentrate on promoting the knowledge economy to make Europe better able to create jobs and provide higher living standards.

The charter and code will be vital in helping to improve the knowledge economy, as they will provide the basis for pan-European approaches to the recruitment, employment and retention of researchers. Investment in developing highly skilled people is essential to increasing expenditure on research and development to increase Europe's economic performance and achieve the Lisbon goals.

The charter will help raise standards by placing greater emphasis on not only funders and employers, but also on researchers themselves, to professionalise these careers. It sets out guidance for researchers on how to ensure their work is relevant to society and highlights how they are accountable to the public. The public must become more aware of the vital role researchers play in society. Public engagement is a key element of the charter.

At the heart of both documents is the need for Europe to recognise the importance of mobility in research careers. This is essential not only for Europe, but also for the UK if we are to meet our commitment of increasing spending on research and development to 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product by 2014. To do this, we will first need to ensure that the UK has a sufficient supply of people with science, engineering and technology qualifications.

This requirement was crystallised in the UK last year with the publication of the Ten Year Science and Innovation Investment Framework and the Government's response to SET for Success . We are providing extra funding to the research councils to improve the recruitment, retention and progression of people with science, engineering and technology skills.

The momentum provided by the development of the charter and code will allow the UK to build on its existing initiatives. The challenge now is to engage all those who have a stake in its implementation. By driving and contributing to the debate, we can ensure that the UK remains competitive within Europe.

Through the conference, we aim to build on good practice, to improve standards and career opportunities for researchers and ensure the UK retains its world-class research base.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville is Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science and Innovation.

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