MEP backs European careers framework to tackle research precarity

Webinar hears that postdocs are being ‘deprofessionalised’ and encouraged to win grants on behalf of principal investigators

February 19, 2021
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An MEP shaping the European Union’s research agenda has called for a common set of standards for academic career progression across the continent to help combat widespread precarity and the intellectual exploitation of junior researchers.

A new “research career framework” would be a “very good idea”, Maria da Graça Carvalho, Portugal’s former science minister, told a webinar addressing the growing problem of insecure, temporary academic positions across the continent.

Ms Carvalho, one of the MEPs steering the agenda of the EU’s Horizon Europe research and innovation framework, said insecurity would be a key concern of the European Parliament as its focus turns to better integrating the continent’s academic labour market.

But common standards for academic careers would be “difficult to implement”, she said – it had already been “a nightmare” to synchronise academics’ pensions across a patchwork of national systems.

Nevertheless, some kind of common careers framework “would be an important step”, said Wim van Saarloos, former president of the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences in the Netherlands, one country that has spearheaded attempts to make academic careers more secure. “You could take a particular institution and rate it according to that system. That would help and be a step in the right direction,” he told delegates.

Brussels has dabbled before in regulating academic careers. In 2005, it created a European Charter for Researchers, which attempted to protect, for example, academics’ involvement in decision-making and their intellectual property. The charter demanded that universities ensure that “the performance of researchers is not undermined by instability of employment contracts”.

More than 1,000 organisations signed up; such a charter could be updated, suggested Martin Andler, president of the Initiative for Science in Europe, a grouping of learned societies and research organisations that organised the webinar, held on 18 February.

The event heard that postdoctoral researchers had been “deprofessionalised” and were now commonly referred to as “interns” or “assistants” rather than “fellows”, according to Mariya Ivancheva, a lecturer in higher education studies at the University of Liverpool.

One particularly pernicious practice in England involved universities encouraging postdocs to use their ideas to apply for grants on behalf of their principal investigators, she said. Entire training sessions had been held to instruct postdocs on how to do this, added Dr Ivancheva, co-author of a report published last year by the European Association of Social Anthropologists that found that only a minority of anthropologists surveyed had a permanent contract.

That early career researchers found it difficult to claim authorship of their own ideas through the grants system made them even more precarious, she argued. “We are not lacking good ideas in research. We are lacking attribution of the good ideas to their actual authors,” she told delegates.

To address this problem, postdocs whose ideas are used to win grants for their principal investigator should be always made a co-principal investigator on the project, suggested Rachel Coulthard-Graf, a careers adviser at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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