Wanted: grants made for walking

ESF chief says young researchers value mobility and autonomy over job security. Paul Jump reports

July 22, 2010

Young researchers value their independence more than posts that provide long-term career stability but carry the risk of an interfering boss, according to the head of the European Science Foundation.

Marja Makarow, the organisation's chief executive, said she had reached the conclusion after listening to the views of young principal investigators at the Euroscience Open Forum in Turin, Italy.

At an ESF session on whether tenure track was an attraction for young principal investigators, some researchers said positions offering autonomy and mobility were more attractive than those with an explicit prospect of being considered for senior academic positions.

European Research Council starting grants, which are portable and allow researchers to choose where they work, were particularly sought after, Professor Makarow said.

"Young principal investigators like them because there is no boss interfering or taking credit for their research," she told Times Higher Education.

Mobile grants are also seen as a solution to the so-called "two-body problem", which occurs when academics who are partners are unable to find positions in the same region.

Her observations contrast with the views of young principal investigators at the Royal Society's Tomorrow's Giants conference in London earlier this month. They repeatedly cited their lack of career stability as their chief concern.

On the issue of mobility, Professor Makarow said it was "always a good thing" but warned that in some European countries it is pursued for its own sake. "Those who haven't been mobile should not be automatically excluded from attaining academic positions," she said.

During a session on doctoral training, she said she was disturbed to hear that some European universities do not register PhD students until late in their studies.

"This means the students are non-existent to the outside world, and this can lead them to be mistreated," she said. "Most supervisors know it is in their best interests to have a good working relationship with PhD candidates, but sometimes there are cases where a student's position is so weak that they can be exploited."

She said that the practice also led to the distortion of official statistics on doctorates, although she admitted that she did not know how widespread the problem was.

Doctoral students must be more willing to complain when their academic environments are not adequate, Professor Makarow said.

"Top-down pressure" could also help, such as encouraging universities to set up doctoral schools that "do register all their students and support and follow their progress".

Doctoral programmes need to be structured but also flexible enough to respond to researchers' interests, Professor Makarow added. "Their creativity should not be stopped at the first step."


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