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Researchers of the world, engage!

If Europe is to move towards a proper career structure for working in research, those at the sharp end must make themselves heard, says Miguel Jorge.

“Mobility or stability? That is the question.” So said Riccardo Biondi, a winner of the first Euraxess European Research Area Slam competition, at the Voice of the Researchers conference in Brussels in November. Mobile researchers like Biondi struggle to obtain a stable research position and end up depending on temporary contracts and grants, even when they seem to be doing “everything right”, he said.

This feeling has become increasingly pervasive among European researchers. In 2013, the MORE2 survey of the mobility patterns and career paths of EU researchers showed the dark side of mobility. More than 30 per cent of researchers said that being mobile had damaged their career opportunities.

This effect is most pronounced in countries with more rigid and hierarchical research systems, such as in southern and eastern Europe. Many such countries find it hard to recruit and keep talented researchers. But the issue is one for the EU as a whole: in the MORE2 survey, ex-EU researchers cited a lack of long-term career opportunities as a reason for leaving the EU.

This mobility dilemma is part of a deeper problem: the lack of a sustainable, meritocratic, professional career path for researchers. With few exceptions, if you want to be a full-time researcher you must be ready to pay the price—which is often to bounce from one fixed-term contract to the next, never knowing where you will land, assuming that you land at all. Helen Lees, another participant at the Euraxess conference, recently described the frustrations of such a life [RE 5/12/13].

Politicians keep saying that we need to attract more people into research. But confront these decision-makers with researchers’ contractual instability, lack of career progression and lack of basic social-security rights, and their answer is always the same: being a researcher is risky and if you are unhappy, do something else.

No-one is advocating jobs for life, but knowing whether you are going to have a salary next year would be nice. Something needs to change.

The answer is for researchers to make themselves heard. Eight years ago, I returned to my home country, Portugal, after working in the UK and United States. I soon became frustrated with the idiosyncrasies of the Portuguese system—the nepotism, bureaucracy and lack of transparency—but found it difficult to change things on my own. I got together with some like-minded colleagues in different institutions and formed Anict, a Portuguese association for research staff.

By adopting a constructive approach and making concrete proposals, we have made ourselves heard by policymakers and helped to promote important changes in research funding and the career status of researchers in Portugal. I am now involved in launching the International Consortium of Research Staff Associations, which will link and support the formation of such associations around the world.

Forming or joining a research staff association is not the only way to influence policy. Euraxess recognised this when it launched the Voice of the Researchers initiative, aimed at creating a communication channel between policy and grass-roots research. The point is that researchers need to do more to set the research policy agenda, not only by identifying the most pressing problems but by proposing solutions as well. The conference in November showed how this could work on a small scale, and the approach is now being extended using web-based technologies and social media.

We are still far from fully solving the issues raised at the conference, such as the need for EU-wide social-security and pension schemes, and open, transparent and fair recruitment across all member states. But one thing is certain: researchers are becoming increasingly involved in addressing these issues.

It is an uphill battle, make no mistake about it. There seems to be at least some political will from the European Commission to implement a single European pension scheme, but this is unlikely to happen until all member states buy into it. Similarly, despite efforts from the Commission and many research staff associations, practical implementation of even the most basic principles of the European Charter and Code for Researchers is being blocked by member states unwilling to change their ways. On the issue of career stability, the political will is not even there.

As researchers, it is our job to come up with brilliant ideas that increase our understanding of the world around us. The challenge is to do the same for the research system itself. So if you have thought of a clever method to distribute research funding in a fairer way, or to achieve an EU-wide pension scheme, make yourself heard. Join a research staff association, post it on the Voice of the Researchers forum or discuss it with your colleagues in the pub. Whatever you do, get engaged.

More to say? Email comment@ResearchResearch.com

Miguel Jorge is a lecturer in chemical engineering at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. He is a member of the steering committee of the International Consortium of Research Staff Associations and is involved in the Voice of the Researchers initiative.