European research area

Realpolitik for mobility

“National preference”, the complex puzzle of differing social security systems and administrative problems are just some of the pitfalls lying in wait for scientists wanting to have international careers. The Commission’s Green Paper on the European Research Area is opening new avenues for facilitating this type of career, with a broad-based consultation of those most concerned.

Dieter Kaufman is a chemist and researcher in the German private institute. He has just won a one year research contract in Stockholm. This will involve him working alternately one month in Sweden and one month in Germany with his existing employer. Dieter will continue to receive his regular salary from his institute, whilst the city of Stockholm will grant him € 3 000 a month to cover various expenses. Does this make Dieter a full-time employee? Will the additional experience he gains in Sweden be recognized in Germany? Is he working two half-time jobs? What tax system does he come under? From the viewpoint of social legislation, any number of interpretations seem possible. He could be considered as having two simultaneous activities in two Member States, being employed in Germany and part-time in Sweden, being employed in Germany and detached to Sweden, working in Germany between two missions in Sweden… Caught in the labyrinth of the practical application of regulation 1408/71, it will cost him quite some time to sort out his status and find the information that applies to his specific situation.

Europe road blocks

Dieter is just one example of the difficulties that lie in wait for nomadic scientists. “Attractive careers and seamless mobility are essential for researchers… but far from being a reality”, says the Green Paper “The European Research Area: New Perspectives”, published recently by the Commission(1), which has given rise to wideranging consultation (see box). The answers have been analysed by a Group of Experts, which has already submitted an initial interim report, with a more detailed final report to follow. This first report observes that “researchers continue to see their career prospects held back by a host of legal and practical obstacles which block their mobility between institutions, sectors and countries”.

Mobility runs up against various specifically European obstacles. University posts are in most cases reserved for nationals. Governments generally require research funding to be spent in the beneficiary country. A battery of administrative constraints lies in wait for those who have succeeded in getting recruited beyond their home borders. Social systems (pensions, family allowances, healthcare, etc.) legislation and regulations (education, qualifications, access to the profession, work permits), family policy and salaries differ widely from one country to another. Everyone ends up confused.

Another example is Miguel Herrada. After finishing a PhD in biology in Belgium, he was employed there by a pharmaceutical laboratory, where for two years he worked on a postdoctorate. After this he returned to Spain, married and went looking for a job. On applying for unemployment benefit, article 67 (3) of law 1408/71 was waved in his face. He had not paid sufficient contributions in Spain. He would have been entitled to unemployment pay in respect of his time in Belgium (where he had paid tax and social security) for a period of… three months. Unfortunately, he omitted to fill in the special forms before leaving the country.

A single labour market

These complications and ambiguities would be removed if the harmonisation of researcher status, which the Union is proposing, were to be achieved via a single labour market, “involving notably the absence of financial or administrative obstacles to transnational mobility” (2). Ideally, one would end up with “full opening of academic research positions and national research programmes across Europe, with a strong drive to recruit researchers internationally, and easy movement between disciplines and between the public and private sectors – such mobility becoming a standard feature of a successful research career.”

For this do we need a “binding” European framework, aimed at improving trans-national recruitment conditions, the European dimension of careers, and the harmonisation of social security? How do we apply the principles of “flexisecurity” (combining work flexibility with job security) to the research world? How do we meet researchers’ need for lifelong education and training? These are some of the questions, relating more specifically to the topic of mobility, raised by the responses to the huge Commission consultation.

Opening up the field

Right now, researcher recruitment differs considerably between the private sector (where personality and motivation are factors in the selection procedure) and the public sector (based on scientific competence). Statuses vary, and careers advance differently, from one country to the next - most scientists being civil servants in certain countries.

How can one unblock this situation? True, the Commission has launched its European Researchers’ Mobility Portal containing job offers, but this site is far from centralising all opportunities on offer – and certainly not the top jobs. To counter this “protectionist” tendency, experts are interested in the possibility of an initial selection procedure based on a candidate file, without interviews or written examinations. Not requiring applicants to travel simply for a first interview could increase the number of nationalities applying for jobs and by extension the overall number of applicants. The problem of eligibility applies also to female researchers, who are under-represented, in particular in positions of responsibility. One idea the Green Paper launches is reducing discriminatory factors in the hiring process by asking candidates to list just five to ten publications, which would put greater emphasis on quality than on quantity.

Widening the catchment area is not enough, however, to overcome the question of young people’s lack of interest in science. One answer could be to transform researchers’ conditions of existence, allowing them a better balance between professional and private life (which 69.4 % of respondents would welcome), with genuine career planning, competitive pay and possibilities for creativity. All too often, in Europe, researchers find themselves working on their mentors’ topics. Scientific autonomy is discouraged. But at doctoral or post-doctoral level, researchers prefer to be seen as professionals rather than as eternal students.

And at the end of it all…

And then, in research as elsewhere, today’s young people are thinking of... their retirement. This question is considered as one of the main social problems militating against researcher mobility (27.8 % of respondents). More than half those answering on Internet would like to see a common European legal system adapted to mobile workers. From the youngest to the oldest of them, many are afraid that their pension rights will vanish into thin air if they decide to return to their home countries at the end of their careers. “The instruments to resolve this question need to be prepared now, otherwise the most mobile researchers will also be the poorest when they reach retirement age...”

Senior economics researcher Adriana Popescu from Romania is a veritable incarnation of mobility, having worked twenty years in Romania, five in the UK, four in Belgium and eleven in Italy. She has decided to retire to Rome, after completing her final post at an Italian university. She now has to have her pension rights validated in every country she has worked, mentioning the international side of her career. She is battling with an impressive number of forms and paperwork in an attempt to have information on her case. Patient waiting is needed.

Several solutions have been explored by the Group of Experts to facilitate mobile researchers’ pension rights. In the short term, a Pension Support Centre (PSC) could be set up in each Member State. This system would provide qualified managers with a better understanding of the problem. It would help anchor the “portability” of supplementary pension rights directive, once adopted, in national regulations, and would enable interested parties to obtain consistent advice. Other intermediate solutions, like a pan-European pension fund for researchers, are also envisaged.

In other words it is from A to Z, from the beginning to the end of professional life, that the very special mobility of scientists, which is becoming an increasing necessity with the globalisation of knowledge, needs to be rethought.

Christine Rugemer

  1. The European Research Space: new prospects”, Green paper 04.04.2007. ISBN 978-92-79-05535-5. This work assesses the outcomes of initiatives launched since the creation of the ERA and avenues to be pursued to give it more concrete form. A special sub-chapter is devoted to achieving a single labour market for researchers.
  2. All unspecified quotations are from the Green Paper.


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The effects of the Charter & Code

The European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for their Recruitment (also known as the Charter and Code or more simply C&C), was published by the Commission in 2005. It is not a regulation but a framework proposed to Member States. The charter's objective is to incite public and private players to take proper account of the European dimension of research careers. This approach includes in particular trans-national job offers and providing support opportunities to researchers.

Almost 60 % of respondents to the Green Paper questionnaire welcomed these measures intended to improve recognition of the profession and salary conditions. But whilst most of these find the intention worthy, three-fifths of them believe that the non-binding nature of the C&C has prevented it from having a large enough influence.

Differences in researcher status also complicate the application of the C&C. ETUCE (European Trade Union Committee for Education) proposes linking the granting of funding by European research programmes to the recognition of this status and the application of certain of its principles. Others, like Inra Institut national de la recherche agronomique (FR) – would prefer certification of institutions which apply the charter. This would be “an excellent way of implementing it, with no need for coercive regulations”.  A large majority (75%) of respondents also believe that a C&C label would encourage employers and funders to apply these principles.

The private sector, on the other hand, fights shy of any principle of obligation, preferring a voluntary basis, for example, when it comes to publication of job offers. As the manager of a small high tech company puts it: “it is difficult to imagine an SME being required to publish all its R&D offers on the European Researchers' Mobility portal and to use selection committees composed in the manner prescribed by the Code”.


Green paper and consultation

The Green Paper The European Research Area: new perspectives, published by the Commission in April 2007, was followed by a traditional consultation procedure. Questionnaires were sent to the institutions and research players. At the same time these same questions were placed on line and available to everyone. 685 surfers responded. 130 position papers were submitted  by institutions.

Most respondents felt that mobility should not be seen simply as a response to employment market needs, but also as providing additional qualifications and experience for researchers working in different environments. In this perspective they emphasise  the need for common social legislation. Among the ideas advanced, we find also the desire for a closer alignment of European research and education policies.