EESC Opinion: Researchers in the European Research Area

March 8, 2004

Brussels, 25 February 2004

OPINION of the European Economic and Social Committee on the Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament - researchers in the European Research Area: one profession, multiple careers COM(2003) 436 final
Full text of Opinion in MS Word file on ESC website

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General comments

The ESC is extremely pleased that in its communication the Commission addresses the important and in the past neglected issue of research careers. The Committee entirely agrees with the Commission that "human resources are to a large extent the key of research efforts, excellence and performances", and it supports the Commission in its objective of tackling this problem in a Community context. The Committee pointed out in an earlier opinion that human capital is the most sensitive and the most valuable resource for research and development and that it therefore supports the Commission's efforts to enhance human resources. The Committee sees a need for clear improvements here and is glad that the Commission intends to act.

As well as the researchers themselves, society also invests in the acquisition by researchers of the necessary broad and demanding basic and advanced specialised knowledge. Policy-makers, on behalf of society, thereby take on responsibility for ensuring that this investment is put to the best possible use. This must include providing researchers with appropriate career paths with attractive opportunities for branching out, without the danger of finding themselves at a dead end. The Committee supports the Commission in its efforts to carry out this task.

But the Committee also points out that successful research and development requires appropriate, competitive, and unfortunately also often expensive equipment (large apparatus) and infrastructure. It also entails a demanding phase, extending over a period of years, of building the teams involved and getting them up to speed, while also requiring the necessary budgets for the scientific exploitation of these resources.

Political and business decisions are needed to conduct research on a broad and long-term basis, to provide sufficient resources to this end and to guarantee planning certainty. The latter factor in particular plays a decisive part in motivating young people to seek a career in research, i.e. in obtaining, retaining and making optimum use of human resources.

The Committee is therefore very concerned that these conditions are currently not being adequately met, if at all, in many Member States. Apart from the well known and serious economic consequences of this, this failure is also the source of a worrying brain drain, with the best young researchers leaving, usually for the USA.

The Committee therefore urgently appeals to the Council, the Parliament and the Commission, but particularly to the Member States, to honour their commitments, e.g. those entered into at the Barcelona European Council, and increase investment in research and technological development (RTD) to 3% of GDP by 2010 and at the same time ensure planning certainty and research freedom - particularly with a view to sufficient fundamental research. Investment in research and development which bears comparison with competing economies is the basic precondition for achieving the Lisbon objectives, i.e. making the European Union the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010.

The Committee would draw attention to its earlier recommendation that increasing Community R&D investment by 50% be made a medium-term policy objective for the period after the sixth R&D framework programme.

This must obviously be complemented by effective measures designed (i) to acquaint young people with science and research and (ii) to give greater weight to the teaching of science, technology and mathematics in school curricula and to present these subjects in an attractive way. Research and development are the foundation of our current way of life and they sow the seeds of future innovation, prosperity and peace.

There is, however, insufficient public awareness of the importance of, preconditions for, and scope of this issue. Its importance is also insufficiently reflected in school curricula and teaching.

As the Commission rightly points out, the motivation of talented young people to opt for an academic training leading to a career in research, and the subsequent career decisions of trained scientists as to the institution or country where they wish to work also depend on social attitudes and the importance which society attaches to these activities.

The value attached to research is reflected not only in public opinion but also in the continuity, reliability and firmness of political and business decisions. This is true both at Community level and especially in the Member States. Human resources, material resources and work opportunities offering the necessary scope for career development and their financing are closely interconnected factors.

If the will is there, if the necessary material conditions are met and the decision is taken to promote research and development at Community level and in the Member States, to reward researchers appropriately and to make a special effort in those Member States in which catching-up is needed, it will be easier to solve the other problems highlighted in the Commission's communication: "These differences and the lack of openness of researchers' careers in Europe, prevent the development of proper career perspectives at European level as well as the emergence of a real employment market for researchers in Europe, whether considered from a geographical, sectoral, or gender perspective".

Careers in research in the European Research Area necessarily require mobility and flexibility. This should not, however, be at the expense of personal and family living conditions and social benefits. The Committee therefore supports the Commission in its objective of working towards a solution for the associated problems, and calling for/guaranteeing an appropriate and internationally competitive contractual status for researchers.

The Committee on the whole supports the measures and initiatives proposed and planned by the Commission. It doubts, however, whether they will be sufficient to enable the objectives set out in the communication to be met. The Committee considers the development of analytical studies, referred to several times in the communication, to be potentially helpful in individual cases but by no means sufficient.

Rather, the right political steps are needed, particularly on the part of the Member States. The communication contains no specific proposals to this end, however, or any discussion of the legal basis.

Calling for specific measures does not, however, imply over-regulation and resulting restrictions on the freedom to shape individual approaches or allow competition between alternative approaches.

The Committee therefore also recommends that the experience already accumulated in the implementation of thematic actions under the R&D and EURATOM framework programmes, the Socrates and Marie Curie programmes and the mobility programme be exploited more than hitherto, and that in particular the experiences and problems of scientists with a "European" career already behind them be taken into account. Possible legal obstacles should be tackled at an early stage and appropriate solutions identified.

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European Economic and Social Committee

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