Is there a brain drain? What Europe does for its researchers

December 15, 2005

Brussels, 14 December 2005

It is regularly said that Europe has to become “the most competitive knowledge-based society” in the world. A key element of this is the European Research Area, which regroups all EU support for the better coordination of research activities and the convergence of research and innovation policies, at national and EU levels. In this way, the EU can bring together its work in this area and build a “single market” for research and innovation Skilled researchers, ready to move from one country to another whether inside or outside Europe, have an essential role to play in achieving this ambitious objective. However, acquiring skills, in particular through this mobility, is not always simple and easy: administrative procedures can be long and complicated; salaries can be low; recruitment sometimes appears quite mysterious; a new environment can be difficult to understand and to move in; there can be uncertainty about a career path. Europe, through several recent and less recent initiatives, tries to tackle these obstacles and ease the researchers’ life and career.

Helping researchers to gain experience in another country

Europe is good at “producing” researchers, the quality of its education is largely recognised and its universities are top level. But skills are not just about a course of academic study. From a very early stage, researchers need to have the opportunity to “feed” their knowledge from different sources, to be able to discover other environments, to exchange with colleagues working on the same topics, to get in touch with other disciplines which could be interesting for their own research. Mobility, though not being an end in itself, is essential in a researcher’s career. It helps improve the quality and quantity of research training, by offering the best available opportunities, regardless of where expertise is located.

From an early stage, researchers may receive scientific and complementary training, both within selected institutions or networks, through conferences and training courses. Early stage training offers the young researcher the possibility to work in challenging multidisciplinary research environments with world renowned experts and state-of-the-art equipment. It also allows them to acquire complementary skills, which equip them for employment in different sectors and enhance their career development.

This is the aim behind the Marie Curie Actions, funded by the EU research budget and supporting researchers in various ways.

The “Marie Curie schemes”, which currently cover all the stages of a researchers’ active life, cover training, mobility of researchers and the recognition of excellence. They can be divided in the following three categories:

  • Host-driven actions, within which the proposals are submitted by organisations; they provide structured training for researchers in the early stages of their career and enable the development and transfer of skills in research; they include the Research training networks, the host fellowships for early stage research training, the host fellowships for the transfer of knowledge and the Marie Curie Conferences and Training courses, comprising a series of events and large conferences;
  • Individual driven actions, within which the proposals are submitted by individual researchers with a hosting institution; they help experienced researchers to develop specialised or complementary knowledge and expertise to achieve independence, and include: Intra-European Fellowships, Incoming International Fellowships, and Outgoing International Fellowships;
  • Excellence promotion and recognition: they aim at increasing the visibility and attractiveness of European research, through the highlighting of personal achievements of European researchers with a view to supporting their further development and international recognition. They include: Marie Curie Excellence Grants, Marie Curie chairs, and Marie Curie Excellence Awards - the 2005 awards were announced on 1 December.
What researchers say

“I was able to discuss scientific problems first hand with some of the best scientists in the field, which is very different from reading about them”. (Aleksandra Klots, Polish, after having spent six months at Max Planck Institute)

“I could benefit from the high-level supervisory support available at IESL (Institute of Electronic Structure and Lasers of the Greek Foundation for Research and Technology) and the interaction with experienced scientists from all over the world” (Florian Lang, German)

“Fellows were provided access to one of the richest mathematical libraries in Europe. Often what one needs in mathematics is not some specific knowledge but a certain experience, known as “mathematical maturity”” (Gavin Band, British, after his stay in the Banach Centre in Warsaw)

“Research is always about the exchange of ideas, and the fellowships promote this exchange by providing a framework for the interaction of researchers”. (Anatasia Kartasheva, Russian, who spent her fellowship at the Economics department of Free Brussels University)

But moving country is not always that simple

In theory, researchers are free to move within Europe and access new knowledge and skills. In practice, they still have to contend with several obstacles: administrative, cultural, linguistic, social etc.. Furthermore, a researcher will often have a family who face their own specific problems: registration with the new local authorities, sorting out all the questions related to visa, residence, administration, finding a new house, enrolling the children in a new school. And all of this often in a foreign language and an unknown cultural environment. In many cases, up to date and accurate information regarding all these questions is not available.

Therefore the European Commission set up the European Network of Mobility centres, also known as ERA-MORE (European Research Area-Mobile Researchers), made up of organisations which provide concrete assistance to researchers and their families before, during and after their move abroad.

Since its launch in June 2004, the ERA MORE network has helped thousands of researchers through its 200 mobility centres. Common issues are visas, work permits, salaries, taxation, social security, healthcare, pension rights, accommodation, recognition of qualifications, day care, schooling, language courses, social life and culture, intellectual property rights, even the necessary vaccines for the family dog or cat!

What researchers say

“I would like to express my appreciation and sincere gratitude for the qualified help offered to me by the personal activating within the Mobility centre of the University which as part of both a national project and the EU project “Network of Mobility Centre” appears to achieve quite well the tasks those projects deals with”. (Dr Cecilia Arsene, about the Mobility Centre of the University of Crete)

“I only have one word to say: congratulations. And a second one: Thank you. Yours is really an excellent service for us and particularly for our foreign visitors” Dr Eric Leblanc, département de cancérologie gynécologique, Centre Ocar Lambenet in Lille, about the Lille Mobility centre)

Coming home

Working outside your own country undoubtedly adds value to a researcher’s career – all those who have experienced it can confirm that. It can help a researcher acquire new skills, build up contacts, take part in exchanges which will improve the quality of research and its reliability. However, certain difficulties may be encountered when returning “from outside” to the original institution: another researcher may have “taken your place”, the institution may no longer be able to provide resources for your own research, there may be changes in the internal structure. A lot can change during an absence of up to five years.

This is why the European Commission has set up the Marie Curie European or International Reintegration Grants. They allow the researcher returning from another country inside or outside Europe to reintegrate in a stable research career.

What is also of particular interest for researchers is to be informed of existing job opportunities. This is why the European Researchers Mobility Portal was set up. The Portal is a single entry point for researchers wishing to work in another country, as well as for organisations wishing to recruit the most talented European and non-European researchers. The European Portal is furthermore relayed at national and in some cases local levels by national/local portals.

What experts say

“Ideally one day we should have a very convenient structure for mobile researchers throughout Europe: researchers could travel from the European Researchers’ Mobility Portal to the national portals to the local level and at all levels meet with people who are in the project and are committed to helping them” (Barbara Sheldon, German Mobility centre of the Humbolt Foundation)

Getting the right working environment

Although the public’s interest for science and science-related issues has been growing in recent years, science and research are not really considered as a “career”: they are viewed as difficult options, needing long and hard studies, involving poor rewards, low social status and high personal risks. The future of those who have chosen such a career is very often seen as uncertain, reliant on one short term postdoctoral appointments after another. Recruitment procedures are not always wholly transparent. Moving from one country to another can make this even more complicated as the researcher risks losing advantages gained in the country of origin such as pension rights, social security benefits, career progress etc.

That’s why the European Commission, after a nine-months consultation process with all interested parties, adopted the “European Charter for European Researchers” and the “Code for recruitment of researchers”, both approved by the Council in its conclusions of 18 April 2005.

While the Charter actually consists of a sort “bill of rights and duties” for all researchers working in the European Union, whatever their nationality, and for their employers and funding bodies, the Code aims at establishing a reference framework for transparency and openness in the researchers’ recruitment process.

A few months after the adoption of the Commission recommendations and their approval by the Council, we are already seeing results. Those who have committed themselves to adopt the Code and Charter, or who have already done so include:

  • Conference of Italian University Rectors (CRUI),
  • Rectors Conference of the Swiss Universities,
  • Rectors’ Conference of the French universities,
  • Italian National Research Council (CNR),
  • Slovak Rectors’ Conference
  • German Rectors Conference
  • Lithuanian Government: a resolution has been adopted integrating the provisions of the Charter and Code into the modus operandi of all public sector research and educational establishments
  • ENEA (Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and the Environment): signed the declaration of commitment together with all the other main Italian Research Institutes on 13 December
  • CNRS in France: will signal their adoption of the Code and Charter on 16 December in a small ceremony in Brussels with the participation of Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for Science and Research
  • INSERM, the French National Centre for Health an Medical Research, will sign the declaration of commitment on 30 January 2006.
This initiative and its take-up by research organisations is extremely promising for a tangible improvement of the working environment for researchers in Europe.

What experts and researchers say

“Without researchers, there is no science in Europe. That is why it is crucial to address the status of researchers. By setting out the roles and responsibilities of researchers, we are going some way to ensuring the researchers, wherever they work, are treated with the respect and esteem they deserve.” (Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for Research)

“If researchers are given a fair professional environment, it will create a better and more creative atmosphere for scientists.” (Alexandre Quintanilha, director of the Cellular and Molecular biology Institute, professor at the biomedical Institute, Porto)

“In the worlds of research, the main resource is represented by researchers’ abilities, skills, ideas and commitment; CNR’s goal is to reach full valorisation of its 4,000 researchers and more than 1,000 associated researchers, removing all possible obstacles” Fabio Pistella, chairman of Italian National Research Council)

“If you can refer to an EU recommendation, then you have a leverage that might really get things moving” (Christine Heller del Riego, coordinator of the working group on career development for EUROSCIENCE)

Europe as an international destination for research

The European Commission’s actions also focus on the situation of researchers from outside the EU. Our purpose is not only to improve working conditions for European researchers, but also to become a serious destination for talent from elsewhere.

Researchers coming from outside Europe face many of the same problems as researchers moving within Europe. However, they first will have to tackle a significant obstacle: the obtention of a visa to enter Europe. So far, scientists from third countries such as India, China, Iran, can struggle for months to secure a visa.

What the experts say

“Without help from a hosting institution, non-EU scientists can wait up to a year for a visa, and sometimes arrive with the wrong papers” (Elena Kempe, running the International Office at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell biology and Genetics in Dresden)

“We have heard about Chinese researchers for example, willing to attend a meeting in Paris and finding the visa procedure so long and time-consuming that they couldn’t attend” (Georges Bingen, European Commission, Head of unit “Policy and strategy aspects”, Directorate Human potential, Marie Curie actions and mobility” within DG RTD).

It is exactly to tackle this kind of problem that the Council adopted, on the basis of a proposal by the Commission, a Directive setting out a specific procedure for admitting third country nationals for the purpose of scientific research, as well as a Recommendation addressed to Member States with a view to facilitating the admission of researchers from Third Countries. Accredited research organisations will play a major role in this process. A residence permit will be delivered by the immigration authorities according to an accelerated procedure and this will automatically imply the right to work without needing an “economic needs test”. Once such a permit is granted, the researcher will furthermore be free to move within most Member States (Schengen countries and Ireland) for the purposes of the research project. In addition, a second recommendation covering short-term visas (i.e. entry in the EC for less than three months) to facilitate the delivering of uniform visas for instance to participate at conferences, seminars, etc. was also adopted. It recommends the Member States to rapidly deliver short-term visa (including multiple visas) and to adopt a harmonised approach on supporting documents for visa applications.

Promoting researchers among the public

Scientists and researchers are generally respected for their work. However, they still have a mixed image in the popular mind: many people still think of them almost as aliens, living in another dimension. Then there is the mad and evil scientist who lives in horror fiction and comic books or the eccentric grey-haired introvert who lives in a lab, whose heir- the bookish nerd- knows the ins and outs of quantum theory but is baffled by social practice.

It’s on the basis of these observations, confirmed by several European surveys, that the European Commission decided to launch an awareness campaign entitled “Researchers in Europe 2005”, lasting from June to November 2005.

The main aim of such campaign was to increase public recognition of the profession of researcher and its role in society, not only through underlining the importance of their impact on citizens’ daily lives, but also by demonstrating that researchers are “ordinary people”, facing similar problems, with similar passions, hobbies, families etc to every man or woman in Europe.

Many very different events have been organised in this context at European, national, and regional levels and across borders. countries have participated in the action and the results have been very positive.

Therefore the Commission will launch a call for proposals for another such “European Researchers’ Night” in 2006, following the 2005 success of this headlining event.

What scientists say

“The Initiative was very welcome and gave us a chance to test out a type of event we had in mind for a while” (Research Council Norway, about the Researchers’ night)

“It’s a good idea when young people present their scientific interests and achievements to their contemporaries” (Urszula Swierczynska Kaczor, director of Kielce Science Festival, Poland, about the Researchers’ night)

“I am particularly happy with the results we are having(...)Specifically we are becoming aware that people are quite interested in our activities and they are asking to have the opportunity of repeating the initiative.” (Universidade do Minho, Portugal, about the project My Physics)

“The “Research makes magic” event brought together students and teachers, who became acquainted with researchers and science. It was a great success. So many thanks for making it possible” (Leena Maakela, Helsinki University, about the project “Science Circus”)

Item source: MEMO/05/479 Date: 14/12/2005 Previous Item Back to Titles Print Item

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