Improving “gender balance” in research to help drive up the quality of work produced is among the top priorities for the European Union’s new commissioner for research, science and innovation.
Carlos Moedas outlined his plans for the post, including a new visa scheme for researchers from countries outside the EU, at the European University Association’s annual conference in Antwerp.
The European Commission will also look at what it can do to get more women involved in research and innovation, he said.
Mr Moedas, previously a secretary of state to the Portuguese prime minister, took office in November 2014. His main objectives include collaboration as well as “gender balance and more diversity”, he said at the event at the University of Antwerp on 16 April.
Mr Moedas explained that while 40 per cent of researchers in Europe are female, only 10 per cent of university leaders are women. “There is a pool of talent that we are not tapping,” he said.
The Commission, Mr Moedas continued, had “responsibilities for that” and had to get member states to understand the importance of diversity. “This is as much about research quality as it is about fairness. Diverse research teams really produce better results,” he added.
Boosting diversity would also make Europe a more attractive place for mobile researchers, he said.
To help tempt the best brains to Europe, Mr Moedas is also working on a request for new rules to allow universities to attract researchers from third countries, the Commission’s term for non-EU states.
The scheme will use short visa application periods to foster more mobility within the EU. “Researchers will be able to stay in Europe for up to one year after completing their research. Time for them to find a job or set up a business, [or] time for them to make Europe their laboratory,” he said.
Mr Moedas said that the Commission was finalising its plans for science and innovation under Jean-Claude Juncker, its new president. This involves a controversial scheme to divert €2.7 billion (£2 billion) from Horizon 2020, the Commission’s flagship science and innovation programme, to provide money for a strategic investment fund.
Nordic nations lead by example
Mr Moedas said that he has been “listening carefully” to the voice of European universities, which generally oppose the move.
“I work every day to see that European science, research and innovation is at the centre of those plans,” he said.
However, Mr Moedas admitted that “sometimes it is difficult to explain to politicians the importance of fundamental science”. He encouraged European universities to be “more vocal” on the subject.
“I want to call on you to explore with the Commission how the new fund can actually support universities,” said Mr Moedas, who described the loss of money from Horizon 2020 as a “small sacrifice for more long-term gains”.
In response, Maria Helena Nazaré, the president of the EUA, said that about three-quarters of universities in Europe are not able to borrow money and so would be unable to access the strategic fund. Even those that can access loans would have to go through “complicated processes” that would take “precious time”, she said.
On gender diversity, Professor Nazaré added, that 10 per cent of university leaders in Europe were female was due primarily to the Nordic nations – without them, the figures would be “a disaster”.
Professor Nazaré continued: “Nordic countries put in place policies 60 years ago to prevent these issues, so we do not need to reinvent the wheel because the wheel…has been invented.”
A ‘silent revolution’: doctoral centres mushroom
Growth in the number of doctoral candidates at universities in Europe has been accompanied by a “silent revolution” in the way that they are trained, according to the chair of the European University Association’s Council for Doctoral Education.
Melita Kovačević told the EUA’s annual conference in Antwerp that the rise of doctoral schools, which offer support and training to PhD students and are now prevalent in European universities, is one sign of how institutions are thinking about doctoral education. Professor Kovačević, who is also head of the Laboratory for Psycholinguistic Research at the University of Zagreb, said that the association’s Council for Doctoral Education represents about 200 universities from 35 countries.
“All of our universities are looking for a paradigm shift [in doctoral education]. The starting point for this is that we consider the best outcome [to be] the person, the junior researcher, [which] means more than just a good doctoral dissertation,” she added.
Professor Kovačević said that there are now 700,000 doctoral candidates in Europe, a rise of about 50 per cent over the past decade. The growth has coincided with a “silent revolution” in doctoral education whereby almost 85 per cent of universities now have a doctoral school, up from about 30 per cent in 2007, she said.
However, Professor Kovačević said that there are still issues to overcome. These include looking at the career paths of PhD graduates, with particular focus on how many secure jobs in academia.