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Voice? What voice?

The EU wants a million more researchers by 2020. It’s unlikely to find them while life as a contract researcher remains so miserable, says Helen Lees.

Late last month, the European Commission organised, supported and funded a conference in Brussels intended to elicit the “voice of the researchers”.

Why would they bother? In my experience, no other parties—be they career development organisations such as Vitae, funding bodies or universities—are interested in asking researchers about their experiences or opinions. My efforts to get “voice” as a university researcher resulted in three years of marginalised voicelessness, followed by an irrevocable exit.

I was a researcher at a UK university from November 2010 to November 2013. So there was every chance that this conference might have come at a high point in my career: a time when everything I had developed and nurtured during those three years—my monographs, chapters and articles, the journal I launched, the conferences I attended and helped to organise, the networks and the third book contract—began to bear fruit.

Instead, I was made redundant. My contract ran out and I watched as everything slowly, inevitably fell away. Because I would have no salary, I did not renew my memberships of associations. I did not submit abstracts to conferences, because no-one would pay for me to go anyway. I withdrew the abstracts that had been accepted already. When asked what I did for a living I began to say I wasn’t sure. I got no career advice.

I was leaking out of the academic career pipe. But instead of irrigating the wider research base with my knowledge and expertise, it felt as though I were no-one, nowhere, headed for the sewer.

This is not to say that I look back fondly on my time working in a university. I felt belittled and marginalised: my work was described as “a novelty”—and not in a good way—when it came to research assessments, and a permanent colleague told me that I did “not belong” in academia. There was no investment in my long-term future, and I felt invisible in my department.

Have my fellow contract researchers had similar experiences? Ask them, but brace yourself for the ensuing torrent of sorrow. Yet despite it all, they like doing research.

It seems that the Commission has had enough of member states treating researchers as chips in an economic poker game. Researchers certainly spoke up at the conference. We’ve had enough: of being treated unfairly; of casualisation and mobility requirements that mess with our personal lives; of no career pathway; of broken promises and false and inflated hopes for an academic career. Most of us are heading for industry, where our skills will boost the economy. But, for all that this may help shove our countries up the R&D tables, it is a move driven by necessity rather than choice.

The conference, Raising Researchers’ Voices—Opinions on Jobs, Careers and Rights, was initiated by the Commission through its Euraxess initiative to support research careers, but organised largely by an invited group of researchers. It drew 200 attendees, who talked and mingled with Commission members. It was an interesting and important couple of days.

To judge by what was said at the meeting, researchers are tired of people taking advantage of their love for their work. Only a very small proportion get themselves into comfortable situations; most of us are struggling. That’s not a sustainable environment for the development of researchers. We are not being nurtured. Fixed-term contracts are a nightmare.

The EU wants and needs a million new researchers in and beyond academia by 2020. But talented and highly qualified people have no problem finding a more enjoyable way to spend their time than being buffeted from post to project every one, two or three years.

A huge part of increasing researcher numbers will come down to recruiting more women. But there is a terrible gender bias against women researchers: I regularly felt patronised and condemned by marginalising silences, in my department and the wider academic world. Undervaluing women’s work and academic place with casual derision makes them want to go and do something, frankly, more pleasant.

I have left the system in disgust. Along with other colleagues, I seek some kind of equity for my contribution, some kind of care for me and my work, and some level of professional status. Funded by an EU regional development scheme I have, quite by chance, gained support to set up a limited company and begin consultancy work. I’ve taken back control and, so far, I’d recommend it. Get out, get incorporated, diversify, get flexible and then charge your own rate.

But thank you, Euraxess, for caring. It means a great deal because, apart from the unions—from which researchers are deterred by casualisation and caution—there are no parties who can even bring themselves to acknowledge that we researchers are, in fact, human. That we are, in fact, suffering.

Helen Lees is founding director of Other Consulting and visiting research fellow in the faculty of education and theology at York St John University.

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