Respect research and watch economy boom

February 20, 2004

[Europe desperately needs research talent to thrive, yet a scientific career is often a turn-off, says Philippe Busquin

If the European Union is to achieve its ambitious goal of making Europe the most dynamic knowledge economy in the world by 2010, and of devoting 3 per cent of EU members' gross domestic product to research, it will need abundant and well-trained human resources in research.

The fulfilment of the 3 per cent objective set at the Barcelona Summit in 2002 will require no fewer than 700,000 additional researchers. This cannot be achieved without a broad and integrated strategy that takes stock of the changing environment in which research is pursued.

The EU's strategy for the development of human resources in research and development is based on three objectives: to attract more young people to scientific careers; to foster the training and career development of researchers; and to make Europe more attractive to research talent from around the world.

The European Commission has worked hard to bridge the gap between science and society. It has almost doubled financial support for the training, mobility and career development of researchers, to e1.6 billion (£1.08 billion) over the period 2002-06. It has taken steps to improve living and working conditions for researchers in Europe and to facilitate the entry conditions for non-European researchers to the EU. But this is not enough. Europe also needs to make a career in research more attractive, and to improve public recognition of the role of researchers in society.

There is a lack of public recognition of researchers' decisive contributions to the evolution of economies, largely because of the differences in Europe's training, recruitment, contractual and evaluation systems. It is difficult under these circumstances to instil within the population a shared feeling that Europe's future depends to a large extent on the EU's capacity to attract well-trained researchers.

The EC's policy document Researchers in the European Research Area: One Profession, Multiple Careers tries to address for the first time at a European level all the determinants of a career in research and development.

Several initiatives have been launched including a European Researcher's Charter and a code of conduct for the recruitment of researchers.

Early-stage training requires particular attention. It occupies a pivotal role in shaping careers in R&D, and research trainees need to be given the opportunity to learn by doing. Training through research should be a key feature of the laboratory to which the young researcher is attached.

Unfortunately, the reality is often very different. Training through research is not always at the core of the curricula of higher education institutions preparing researchers for the world of R&D. Researchers' training needs urgently to be made more relevant to a wider variety of careers.

Industry, which is key to achieving the 3 per cent objective, is keen to employ researchers without doctorates because they feel that PhD holders are often too specialist. Many academic researchers still believe that academia remains the only privileged career option. This upholds the traditional gulf between private and public sectors of research in Europe.

Mobility between the two sectors is significantly weaker in Europe than in the US.

We need to enhance the employability of researchers. The traditional core skills of doctoral programmes need to be complemented with wider employment-related competencies; the advantages of openness and multidisciplinarity fostered; and more systematic employment gateways created between the two sectors.

Several EU members have developed a series of initiatives to bring about this change. We must tap into such good practice to develop similar experiences throughout the EU.

As the 2010 deadline for the fulfilment of the Barcelona and Lisbon objectives approaches, the need to encourage research becomes more pressing. I have engaged the EC, through the European Research Area, in a broad and multifaceted initiative that is now beginning to bear fruit.

The definition of more promising and secure career perspectives in research is a trademark of our ability not only to keep our researchers in Europe and meet our commitments, but also to sustain our place on the world's competitive scene.

Philippe Busquin is European commissioner for research. A conference on early years' mobility is to be held in Lisbon next week.

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