Europe adopts new scheme for researchers

June 23, 1995

Josephine Stein examines a system that is tied to national pay levels. A new interim scheme for research fellowships in the Fourth Framework Programme has been adopted by the European Commission and member states.

Fellowship awards, which replace the system used in the Human Capital and Mobility programme, are to be tied to national pay levels for researchers with comparable experience, supplemented by a mobility allowance to reflect the extra cost of living abroad, plus a flat-rate amount covering travel costs between home and host country.

For 1995, the mobility allowance will be Ecu300 (Pounds 250) a month (for postgraduate fellows throughout the European Community; post-doctoral fellows will receive Ecu400 a month. Host institutions will receive a contribution of Ecu10,000 a year towards the direct and indirect costs of research, which is almost twice the amount that United Kingdom organisations received for each postdoctoral fellow under the previous scheme.

Under the new scheme, the commission will set pay levels for fellows going to each European Union country (plus Norway) according to the advice of the member states, in such a way that the fellows will receive stipends that are comparable to, or slightly greater than, the take-home salaries of their peers.

In the UK, host institutions will receive a global allowance for postdoctoral fellows that includes standard estimated tax and superannuation plus statutory national insurance contributions from both employer and employee.

Postgraduate fellows will be treated as students and their allowance will not be subject to deductions for tax, national insurance or superannuation. As the pay levels are set at national level, all fellows in the UK will receive the London allowance so as not to disadvantage unfairly those living and working in the Greater London area. The global allowance for postdoctoral fellows in the UK is provisionally set at Pounds 25,761 and Pounds 10,841 for postgraduate fellows.

The scheme is intended as an interim measure, until a more permanent arrangement can be agreed among the member states and the commission. It will address some - but not all - of the difficulties experienced in the administration of the HCM fellowships.

In the UK, for example, HCM stipends awarded to fellows far exceeded the salaries of their peers, while most host institutions were not able to recover even their indirect costs. In contrast, some British researchers wishing to hold fellowships abroad were dissuaded by the relatively low stipends payable in other European countries after deductions.

In 1992, the Council of Ministers stipulated that EC research fellows should be treated equally throughout the Community. The commission interpreted this requirement by indexing levels of HCM stipends to the cost of living in each of the member states, referenced to salaries of postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers working in Belgium.

The effect of this decision was to ignore the differences in employment practices in each of the member states, including differences in the legal status of fellows and in national practices on research costs.

A Programme of Policy Research in Engineering, Science and Technology study for the commission showed that most difficulties with HCM research fellowships in the UK were due either to misunderstandings between the commission, the fellow and the host, or to uncertainties over the legal and social status of fellows and the obligations of the host institution.

The international tax status of research fellows is governed by a set of complex bilateral tax treaties with each of the other 14 member states. Postgraduate fellows have been considered tax-exempt in most EU countries, but some postdoctoral fellows in the UK were concerned that they might be subject to double taxation. Prest found varying degrees of resentment over the relatively high stipends of fellows in the UK at a time when many research centres were under financial pressure.

Although the new fellowship scheme should reduce the difficulties and resentment in the UK regarding stipend levels and support for research costs, complexities on international tax treatment of fellows and social security obligations will remain, and these may affect a few individual fellows.

It has not been resolved whether the mobility allowance would be taxable in each country. But these anomalies are not thought to be serious barriers to mobility for fellows in the EC's new programme.

Pending the outcome of a review of the 1995 interim fellowship scheme, the member states and the commission are expected to agree a final scheme for the remainder of the Fourth Framework Programme.

It is likely that the final scheme will be based on the interim scheme, with minor adjustments to the global fellowship allowances, the mobility allowances, the travel grant and the contribution to the host institution. Special arrangements may prove necessary, for example for postgraduate fellows with industrial placements.

It is possible that an entirely new arrangement will come into effect for the Fifth Framework Programme.

Under one proposed scheme, research fellows would have the status of commission employees and would be liable for Community income tax while being exempt from tax in their home and their host country.

The fellowships would be administered directly by the commission. This proposed scheme would require new legislation at Community level, and this is likely to encounter opposition.

Despite the administrative difficulties, EC research fellowships are valued for the positive experience they provide for both fellows and host institutions. The ultimate shape of EC fellowship programmes could take several forms, but the member states, the European Commission and the research community are committed to a future for research fellowships in the Framework Programme.

Josephine Stein is senior research fellow with Prest at the University of Manchester.

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