The researcher’s backpack

After the free circulation of persons, goods, services and capital, the European Union is now insisting on a fifth freedom, the free circulation of knowledge. At the heart of this freedom is the mobility of researchers to establish collaborative projects and networks essential to their professional development.

© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock

“The EU is doing everything it can to encourage the mobility of researchers within its borders and to provide them with better career structures”, explains Stefaan Hermans, Head of Unit at the Directorate-General for Research of the European Commission. But it remains difficult for researchers (male or female) to be constantly moving. The pressure to regularly establish new contracts and the natural tendency to establish geographic roots or family ties results in a number of researchers leaving their fields of endeavour, jaded by what seems to be a requirement for never-ending mobility.

A scientist may also be attracted by better employment conditions outside of the EU. While the EU actually produces more science and engineering graduates, as well as more doctoral students, than the United States or Japan, EU researchers represent a lesser proportion of the active workforce in comparison to these two countries. To avoid the individual researcher from ending his/her career prematurely – and thus representing a loss in terms of educational investment – the EU must provide career support and promote his/her mobility. This involves ensuring decent and fair recruitment opportunities, attractive employment and working conditions, in addition to social security benefits and a pension throughout the course of an itinerant career.


In order to be attractive, the researcher’s mobility must be a flexible and coherent process, a step towards a permanent post. In an effort to achieve this, the Commission adopted the European Charter for Researchers and Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers in 2005. “The goal is to ensure equal treatment of researchers and to improve the transparency of the recruitment process”, explains Stefaan Hermans. “Around one thousand institutions have already signed the Charter and Code”. And yet, many university and research centre job offers are only advertised internally. Moreover, academic institutions often prefer to recruit locally, whereas the private sector tends to be more open to competition.

As a result, researchers spend a disproportionate amount of time each year trying to find a new contract or funding and unnecessary costs are incurred by both the job seeker and the institution that eventually employs him or her. The Fifth Freedom thus becomes nothing more than the freedom to advance.... in murky waters. All of a sudden, the European area might appear somewhat small, whereas other destinations, such as the United States, or even China, begin to look all the more tempting.

In order to ensure improved access to public sector vacancies – and therefore help the EU prevent a “brain drain” – the Member States and the EC created the Euraxess site. The site includes a list of numerous doctoral and post-doctoral vacancies, as well as available EU funding. It also provides researchers and employers with information on their respective rights. Additionally, Euraxess service centres are available all over Europe, designed to assist researchers and their families with their transfers.

Conditions of employment

Another important aspect of a researcher’s career is his/her conditions of employment, which are not always attractive. Hence, young scientists often move from one short-term contract for a specific project to the next and are left with the impression of being sent from one place to another with no opportunity for real recognition. And that is when he or she is not faced with periods of unemployment between contracts. Such circumstances obviously delay the securing of a stable position in which the researcher’s talents could be more beneficial to the EU, i.e., long-term project management, knowledge transmission and many other ‘ high value-added’ roles that cannot be carried out within the scope of short-term contracts.

Many talented youth thus end up leaving research for different sectors of the economy, such as consultancy work, where they find stability, responsibility and a more attractive salary. Others stay on the research track, and by the age of 35 or 40 attain a permanent post that allows them to finally express their full potential. But, they need to remain competitive, by cultivating networks established earlier in their career. This is a difficult task because a permanent post equates to reduced mobility. To obviate this obstacle, there are possibilities for researchers to work in foreign institutions while keeping their home posts. For example, “In France, it is possible to continue to be paid by your laboratory while on loan to another”, explains Philippe Thébault, reader at the Paris Observatory. But in reality, such practices are rarely encouraged. “It is also possible to find funding independently or even to take unpaid leave of absence, but the latter option clearly interrupts career advancement. And in numerous institutions, promotion depends on seniority rather than performance. Indeed, it is difficult to be mobile without one’s career suffering.

The research world also cannot ignore that it is difficult for women to remain mobile after a certain age and to have children. A choice must often be made. “The policy debate on this subject was very limited ten years ago”, admits Stefaan Hermans. “But things have changed considerably. In May 2009, a large ‘Women and Science’ conference was held in Prague. Discussions focused on the best practices adopted in different European countries and third country institutions to make careers in science more accessible to women. The text of the European Partnership for Researchers, adopted in 2008, also calls on Member States to ensure the equitable distribution of funds and posts among men and women”.

Social security and pension

Finally, a career as a researcher also requires consideration of social security benefits and a pension, two rights that are generally difficult to fuse with occupational mobility. Indeed, researchers are subject to the different social systems of those countries in which they works. Here the EU is also making great efforts to harmonise systems. However, in practice, when a researcher moves from one country to another because of a contract change, s/he will generally have limited knowledge of his/her rights. “In some countries, there are many different kinds of employment contracts”, explains a post-doctoral researcher in Belgium. “In general, foreigners find themselves offered lower salaries and less favourable social rights. Or, particularly if you are not in command of the language and know little about the country’s legal system, you may find yourself getting tricked when signing the employment contract”.

As regards supplementary pension schemes, researchers will often hesitate to make contributions to a pension scheme in a country in which they will only be working for two or three years. How can they really be sure that, having reached retirement age in a country in which they have set up, it will be possible to benefit from rights acquired in others? “With the European Partnership for Researchers, the Commission initiated a study to determine who would be legally, technically and financially responsible for the creation of a pan-European pension fund responsive to the needs of researchers”, explains Stefaan Hermans. The European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) took a first step in that direction with the introduction of a new pension plan that will be available to all post-doctoral researchers who are beneficiaries of an EMBO fellowship as of 1 January 2010 . Contributors are thus able to continue in the pension plan as they move from country to country.

The professional stability of researchers in Europe remains fragile. Essentially forced to be mobile at the beginning of his career, the researcher initially finds him or herself in search of greater stability and yet, after landing a permanent post, the search for mobility starts again, since the researcher’s competitiveness depends on it. So, in fact, does the competitiveness of Europe....

Stéphane Fay


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The fifth freedom

The free circulation of persons, goods, services and capital are the Four Freedoms laid down in the Treaty of Rome in 1957. However, in light of economic developments and knowledge gains, Commissioner for Research, Janez Potočnik , affirms that Europe now needs a fifth freedom – that of the free circulation of knowledge, as called for by Member States and the EU, to facilitate the mobility of students, researchers and professors, and thereby improve EU competitiveness through innovation. In practical terms, it is a question of increasing human resources in S&T, implementing reforms in higher education, promoting the penetration of the “web economy” and improving interactions between public research institutions and industry.


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