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Research at the interface – a new vision for European science careers

Christian BréchotIn 2003, the European Commission’s Communication, ‘Researchers in the European Research Area: One Profession, Multiple Careers’, opened up the debate on the future of scientific careers in Europe. At the same time, Inserm, the French national biomedical research agency, was putting in place an innovative new career structure for its scientists. It aims to make biomedical research careers more flexible and attractive, as well as addressing the need for knowledge transfer.

Christian Bréchot, director-general of Inserm, who has spear-headed the changes at the French institute, talks about his vision of a European research career, a vision that brings together competitiveness and mobility – key factors in the building of a European Research Area.

What needs to change in Europe’s research systems for research careers to become more attractive?

Bréchot: When we discuss the future of European scientists’ careers we need to find a balance between, on the one hand, being too conservative, which is what is going on in parts of Europe, and, on the other hand, moving too strongly to an American model where we would lose some of the benefits of the situation in Europe.

The strength of research organisation in several countries in Europe is their capacity to lead several middle and long-term projects – risky projects – even in the context of very high pressure for publishing. On the other hand, it is clear – and this has already been taken up by countries such as the UK and a number of countries from the north of Europe – that we have to increase the flexibility, attractiveness and competitiveness of research careers.

So, let’s keep permanent positions, but let’s organise the system so that we have recruitment of the permanent position preceded by high-level temporary contracts for young scientists, with all the social guarantees associated with these contracts. This is an important point. In the UK, there is a debate because it seems that the balance has moved too far to temporary positions as compared with the permanent positions on offer, and if young scientists have too much uncertainty regarding their futures they are really not going to embark on this kind of career.

So what should be the main stages in a European research career?

The idea is that so-called European careers would start with a PhD, then a first post-doc –which should be performed abroad – and, then, followed by a first temporary contract from three to six years. But a high-level temporary contract with a good salary, social guarantees and a real possibility to move from this temporary contract to a university position, to industry, as well as to public research agencies. This will obviously depend on conditions from one country to another – it is a general scheme. Then, you would have the permanent positions, which could be a professor in a university or in other organisations: for example, in France or in Germany the permanent positions offered by INSERM, the CNRS or the Max Planck institutes in Germany.

However, although, here, we would have the advantage of the permanent position, we may lose out as compared with more aggressive systems regarding flexibility and competitiveness. So the idea is to add temporary contracts to this permanent position, which are on top of the basic salary, and the scientists – in biomedical research, for example – would sign these contracts with a hospital, a university, an industrial partner, with a sanitary agency, or with an international institution.
So, in the end, two-thirds of the scientist’s overall salary would be covered by a basic permanent salary and one-third from a temporary contract on top of the permanent position.

In France, we already have 120 Inserm scientists with these “interface” contracts with hospitals and some of them are now also with universities, industry and so on. The word “interface” is very important for me. These are grants where you really put a scientist in contact with other fields of research, other people and other countries. For me, it represents both thematic mobility and geographical mobility.

Do you think that having a fixed permanent base and a temporary contract on top will encourage researchers to take more risks in their careers?

I really think so. The two-third to one-third model creates strong pressure and it encourages mobility and flexibility.

You believe that this new career track model could be used as a basis for a new European career track. How would this work?

Let’s imagine that we have a scientist who is paid by Inserm and he goes to a London university or a hospital in Milan. Inserm maintains the permanent position, so the position is unchanged. He is paid by Inserm, although he is working in London or Milan, but, in addition, he has a temporary contract on top of his salary with the hospital in Milan or the university in London, for three to five years depending on the context. The idea is that these contracts are really translational research contracts – transfer of knowledge from the research in the lab to health, to teaching, to industry, with innovation, technological valorisation and so on.

The researcher’s personal status has been unchanged: he is paid by Inserm and he is really a European scientist with a permanent position. He can go to any country within Europe and he could obtain these additional temporary contracts from an Italian hospital, a French hospital, an English university or a French university.

This was the idea I put forward in these discussions on mobility and I very strongly believe in it. I do recognise that the situation is very different from one country to the other. In the UK, for example, you do have scientists paid by the Medical Research Council, with permanent positions as university professors, and this is also true for many countries in Northern Europe.

You may get all the different combinations between countries and this might lead to the idea of having a career tree which would be common from one country to the other regarding the general status, and then you would have a number of open possibilities with different bodies. I don’t pretend that this is a solution for everyone in Europe, but I think that this is a hint as to how a kind of European model combining the advantages of our social system with the obvious necessity for increased flexibility, attractiveness and so on.

You mentioned translational research. This is really a fashionable concept at the moment. If we consider biomedical research, how can we ensure that these interface contracts benefit the patient as much as the researcher?

This is exactly the point. And this is why I am very happy with the first results from the first contracts we set up in France [in 2002]. The idea is that not only do they get additional money just because they are good scientists. They can maintain a basic research activity – we don’t want them to leave basic research – but they also have to establish a collaboration with a medical doctor, or with a biological department, for example, and they have to set up a transfer of knowledge. For instance, they will work with clinicians on designing a new therapeutic protocol, or they will work with the idea of developing a new diagnostic test. They do not necessarily work on the design of the test by themselves but they have to establish real collaboration and I think that this is a way to have real translational research, because, as you say, translational research is very fashionable but not easy to apply in a concrete way.

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last update: 31-01-2005