Rethink EU research funding ‘to empower young researchers’

European researchers call for a ‘radical reorganisation’ to help undergraduates and PhD students access grants

August 6, 2016
Group of scientists working in laboratory
Source: iStock

Dedicated funding streams to support young researchers should be established by the European Union and its member states, according to a declaration by early career scientists.

Under proposals to encourage free thinking and fresh ideas, young researchers, regardless of their qualifications, should be able to access so-called junior research grants – with undergraduates and PhD students among those able to tap into the system.

The idea is part of the new Bratislava Declaration of Young Researchers, which was presented to EU ministers at a meeting in the Slovak capital on 19 July and commissioned ahead of the country’s year-long presidency of the union.

Drawn up by researchers from different countries, fields and career stages, the Bratislava Declaration calls on funding bodies to “radically reorganise funding streams to trust and empower young researchers”.

It argues that the current “economically oriented, impact-focused, bureaucratic, system is not compatible with fresh ideas and fresh thinking that young people have” and asks “would any of our current systems have funded a young Einstein or a Marie Skłodowska-Curie?”.

The declaration calls on the European Commission and the EU’s 28 member states to “create sustainable and effective funding schemes…for young researchers…to autonomously pursue their research ideas, [their] societal impact…to help them become independent in their careers as early as possible”.

One of the declaration’s authors, Miguel Jorge, a lecturer at the University of Strathclyde’s department of chemical and process engineering, said that his group had agreed that a rethink of funding was urgently needed.

“Funding is increasingly going into large-scale projects, both at EU and national level, which is really the wrong direction of travel,” Dr Jorge told Times Higher Education.

“You need to have a system that allows researchers, even those at PhD level, to obtain their own funding,” he added.

As it stands, gaining research funding separate from a senior scientist or research leader was now a “really big hurdle” that was deterring many from pursuing a research career, said Dr Jorge, one of the directors of the International Consortium of Research Staff Associations.

“The whole drive to predict impact is also creating a very bureaucratic environment that is killing creativity,” added Dr Jorge, who argued that funding should be focused  “almost exclusively” on basic or fundamental research.

The Bratislava Declaration also calls for the creation of “mechanisms for better mobility between the public and private sectors”, as well as movement between disciplines, saying that the “current system only values geographical mobility”.

It also advocates more research skills training in schools, “employment-stability, and explicit criteria for career progression” for researchers, as well as initiatives to improve work-life balance for researchers, such as “better childcare provisions, parental care, flexible working practices and...dual-career opportunities”. EU states should also seek to create a workplace equality scheme similar to the Athena SWAN initiative run by the UK’s Equality Challenge Unit, the declaration says.

Dr Jorge argued that the recent Brexit vote should not stop the UK from reflecting upon the EU declaration, stating that “most of these principles are applicable worldwide”.

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