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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special Issue - August 2003   
 'Let’s be proud of our researchers'
 Choosing a mentor
 Momentum to move
 Drawn to the USA
 Everyday life in Japan
 Balancing the gender equation
 A boost for science
 University challenge
 Migrating to the private sphere
 The incorruptible Marie
 National associations of students, PhDs and researchers

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Title  Research: a vocation

The life of a researcher resembles that of his research – a constant questioning. A decision to embark on a research career is usually preceded by considerable soul searching. It could be described as a vocation; it is certainly a passion. The path can be tortuous: doctorates, post-doctorates, grants and temporary contracts, promises of permanent posts, uncertainty about which direction to take, stiff competition, the constant search for funds, and projects which ultimately lead nowhere.   Add a little luck, a large dose of intuition and imagination, and the picture is complete!  

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'My parents were teachers. As far back as I can remember, when I was about 10, the idea of being a researcher appealed to me. At career guidance sessions, I remember specifically having mentioned it as something I wanted to do. So, it is a vocation, but one that probably didn’t come about accidentally as I come from a background which was culturally but not economically rich,' explains Pablo Achard, a French physicist and post-doctoral researcher at the EU’s particle physics laboratory, CERN (Geneva).

Research can be described as a vocation – a calling perhaps, something strangely inevitable, with its roots firmly embedded in childhood and confirmed in later life. 

Erwan Brugalle, a mathematician and member of Real Algebraic and Analytical Geometry (RAAG), a European research network, prefers to speak of an 'subconscious vocation'.   'I have always been interested in maths for the pleasure and attraction I found in it. Several years of study gave me a pure maths with few employment prospects outside teaching and research. As it was maths for its own sake which fascinated me, I opted for research. It was a way of getting paid for indulging in my passion.'  

Just another day at the office
Doctoral researchers are paid – but often very badly. Nevertheless, some countries can seem like genuine 'research havens' in this respect. In Norway, all doctoral candidates receive a subsidy or a grant from their university. In Ireland, anyone working towards a PhD is considered to be a student and receives money from the government or is sponsored by companies. Money is rarely an obstacle.

'A PhD takes three or four years. I see it as a job, that's all,' believes Frances Coughlan, who is in the last year of her PhD in engineering at the University of Limerick (IE). 'A job where I work from eight to five, Mondays to Fridays, and for which I receive a cheque at the end of the month. The danger in seeing research too much as a vocation is that you will allow yourself to become so overwhelmed by the work on your thesis that you never manage to finish it on time.’

But not all those working towards a doctorate enjoy this kind of comfort. In France, those who opt for medical research, for example, have to complete at least eight years of study. Only about one quarter of them receive any financial support (at the legal minimum subsistence level), the others being left to their own devices.

What is more, the doctorate is just the first stage. Norbert Babscan, a Hungarian doctor of physics and general secretary of the Postgraduate International Network (PINet), thinks that 'a doctorate should prove, in principle, that someone is able to undertake scientific work alone. But this theoretical ideal is far from being verified in practice. Doing a thesis often amounts to being trained under the supervision of a professor who includes you in a project he is running himself.

Under the old Central European system, there was a diploma known as the “candidate researcher”, which was not obtained until the age of 40, whereas a traditional and internationally accepted concept of a doctorate is something you obtain in your early thirties.'   

Taking the post-doctoral gamble
A doctorate is often just the first step. 'But a doctorate is perfectly sufficient for industry, where younger people are preferred,' points out Florian Berberich, a German physicist and post-doctoral researcher in Grenoble (FR). But those whose calling is research know that a post-doctoral qualification is essential. They also know that it is a highly competitive field with an uncertain future. Universities have few resources and offer few prospects of stable employment, high earnings or a solid career.

Rami Olavi Vaino, who lives in Finland – a particularly dynamic country on the research front – sees this in his chosen field of space. 'In physics, astrophysics, and above all astronomy, there are no more than a handful of permanent posts in the entire country. These are held by senior researchers and professors. Meanwhile, the hundreds of young doctorate holders and post-doctoral researchers have to get by on grants and temporary contracts. It is at this stage that the competition is the keenest. Although it acts as a stimulus for excellence, competition also eliminates some very capable young people from the scientific circuit, who finally opt for much more comfortable employment in the private sector.' 

So the lot of the young would-be researcher is often a seemingly endless sequence of post-doctoral work. Although national grants make it possible to remain at the same institution, European grants are generally only for two years. This condemns many researchers to a nomadic existence.

'Research is a passion. It can lead to as much distress as satisfaction,' says Claire Foullon, a specialist in solar physics and astronomy. 'You never stop working, or at least thinking about your work. You are constantly plagued by questions. I sometimes have an idea when out rollerblading or swimming,' says Florian Berberich.

Too much of a good thing
Sports and research have one thing in common: competition. Researchers are familiar with this, accept its rules and do not frown upon it. 'We have to live with competition. It is a way of selecting the best,' says PINet’s Babscan.

'A little competition is healthy. It stimulates people to work better,' says Marco Albani, a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard University (USA).

But it is not as simple as that. Although competition between laboratories and universities provides a positive stimulus, rivalry between peers can be damaging. ‘Team spirit needs to be more important than the quest for glory and recognition,' believes Véronique Boisvert, a Canadian physicist and post-doctoral researcher at CERN (CH), who completed her doctorate at Cornell University (USA).

Team spirit doubtlessly depends on the team leaders and house style.   Janette Friedrich, a German philosopher who is head of teaching and research at Geneva University (CH), has seen how competitiveness has evolved over the years. 'I was not aware of much competition when trying to get a grant, or funding for study visits, as at that stage researchers function as individuals who are independent of any institution. But since joining the university, I have observed competition in the form of distrust, the failure to recognise the theoretical opinion of others, and a lack of openness and respect. I have the feeling that this competition is increasing as members of my generation are now beginning to battle for the few university professorships available.' 

Yet Claire Foullon, who has worked at universities in Scotland (Glasgow and St. Andrews) and Belgium (KU Leuven), experienced no pressure in academia. 'I left the academic world to join the Belgian Royal Observatory. If I have ever felt the pressure of competition and a "master-pupil" relationship, it is at this public research institute and not before. The project leaders orchestrate the competition within the group and control external co-operation. Profit also exerts as much pressure as in the private sector. This falls short of creating an atmosphere conducive to research.' 

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The search for funds
Research funds are sometimes in short supply. 'The target of 3% of the Union's GDP allocated to research by 2010 is very ambitious. Unfortunately, some countries, like France, are taking steps in the opposite direction. This is a serious matter as many studies show the correlation between a country's research activity and growth,' stresses Frenchman Alexandre Urani, head of a research project at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim (DE) and member of Eurodoc, a council for post-graduate students and junior researchers in Europe. 

'I am all the more aware of the financing problems faced by public research as I come from the private sector,' explains Michèle Gué, a lecturer and researcher at the Université de Montpellier II (FR). 'When you want to obtain funds to start work on a new research theme, for example, you have to present publications which refer to results. But as you are just starting out, nothing has yet been published. That is the dilemma.' 

This sometimes makes it feel like a case of “published or be damned”. The quest for funds intensifies the race to get into print. Publishing is clearly important to the progress of knowledge but, under pressure, it can distract the researcher and make him or her focus on the superficial. 'We must be able to resist this pressure. This is crucial if we do not want to sacrifice quality,' urges Friedrich. 

The price of liberty
Can money and freedom go together? 'I believe that the real pressure researchers feel in my field comes mainly from the subsidy committees rather than the university or laboratory,' says Véronique Boisvert of CERN. 'Research projects will go ahead if these committees think they warrant funding. Fortunately, there seems to be sufficient leeway within this support framework for a project to take the direction desired by the research team.'

When asked about the pressure an institute exerts on its researchers, Pablo Achard, who also works at CERN, responds with a cryptic physics analogy: 'Is it an electron which creates an electromagnetic field by moving or is it the field of influence of the electron's trajectory? It is both at the same time. One joins a team whose research priorities and means are determined by its evaluators. But we can also participate in these choices and influence them.' 

So is freedom of research real, relative or Utopian? Friedrich has a philosophical reply. 'That depends on what you understand by freedom,' she says. 'If it is the freedom to choose the subject and method of research, I think it is real. But if it includes the recognition of differences in research and having in place the conditions to allow all types of research to be carried out, then this is not really the case.' 

Printable version

  Doctorates on the increase

There are fewer and fewer science students in Europe. But, paradoxically, those who do take science at university are increasingly likely to go on to study for a PhD.

The countries ahead of the pack in this field are Sweden (1.17 per ...
  An undying passion

Richard Jacobsson, a Swedish physicist, has been dreaming of research since he was a child. And CERN has fascinated him since he was a teenager. Today he works there, plans to stay and believes passionately in his work.

For ...
  Curiosity breeds curiosity

Editor of the astrophysics column for the French monthly “La Recherche”, Jacques-Olivier Baruch decided to change course after completing his thesis.

Is it strange to leave the world of research for journalism? ...

  Doctorates on the increase

There are fewer and fewer science students in Europe. But, paradoxically, those who do take science at university are increasingly likely to go on to study for a PhD.

The countries ahead of the pack in this field are Sweden (1.17 per 1 000 inhabitants aged between 25 and 34), Finland (0.97), the United Kingdom (0.78), Germany (0.75), and France (0.71). They are all clearly ahead of the United States (0.47) and Japan (0.24), even if the latter two count more researchers in their workforce as a whole.

These global figures do not, however, take into account specialisations.   In Belgium, Denmark, France and the United Kingdom some 20% to 30% of doctoral students are foreign, who do not necessarily remain in Europe. Many Europeans go to the United States to work on their post-doctoral degrees (see article Drawn to the USA ). Finally, a significant number of doctors leave the scientific world to take up other occupations.      

  An undying passion

Richard Jacobsson
Richard Jacobsson
Richard Jacobsson, a Swedish physicist, has been dreaming of research since he was a child. And CERN has fascinated him since he was a teenager. Today he works there, plans to stay and believes passionately in his work.

For me, being a researcher is certainly a vocation. I have always been curious about science and I must have been six years old when I first thought of a research career. The idea was behind everything I did. I was first attracted by astronomy and chemistry before turning to physics – I first contacted CERN when I was 14. Today, I work there, which really is a dream come true. I see this institution as a 'fortress' in combating the ignorance which exists in society and which is such a threat to our future. Fundamental research is at the heart of humanity’s boundless curiosity and its results are crucial in the long term. 

It is difficult for me to speak of research as a job. It is a continuous learning process and it is that which is so important in enabling an individual to evolve. You are not a researcher because you are an expert in a particular subject but because you know how to ask the right questions which lead to new discoveries.

Being a researcher at CERN is, in fact, a way of benefiting from the advantages of mobility without leaving the premises. It is a global laboratory which offers enormous scope for working in various fields with different people. Words like  “national” or “foreign” have no place in particle physics. It is only by combining the efforts of many different countries within multinational infrastructures – like CERN, FermiLab in the United States or KEK in Japan – that we can undertake this research. At the same time, these huge facilities are made up of a multitude of technological components that were designed and built to enable physics institutes all over the world to carry out scientific experiments. The same is true of studying the information produced by this research. A high level of mobility between all the centres of excellence is essential. In addition, I do not believe it is correct to speak of a brain drain to the United States in this field. That is perhaps more true of industrial research.

  Curiosity breeds curiosity

Olivier Baruch
Olivier Baruch
Editor of the astrophysics column for the French monthly “La Recherche”, Jacques-Olivier Baruch decided to change course after completing his thesis.

Is it strange to leave the world of research for journalism? Not really. Curiosity is a characteristic required for both activities. The big difference is in the subject of inquiry. Scientific journalists probe and try to penetrate the world of research and how it operates, while researchers probe and try to penetrate the world and how it operates.  

When I decided to round off my studies with a thesis at the Paris Observatory, I was expecting to perceive all the secrets of the Universe and of the astrophysicists with whom I would be working. I watched with pleasure all my little planets revolving around me and the laboratory of which I was a part, but it remained an essentially cloistered existence.  

The offer to help organise the shows at the future planetarium at the Cité des Sciences (Paris) allowed me to pass on to the general public all the information about space which I, myself, found so fascinating. It was a good way of making a living which mixed business with pleasure to the extent that for me they became one and the same thing.

But the more I became familiar with the scientific world in all its diversity, the more I realised that there is more to science than knowledge. There must be more to scientific reporting than simply popularising content. The scientific approach, the observation of this closed world and its controversies, of its hierarchies with its excluded and those favoured by political and industrial interests, are all ingredients which enable you to better realise what is really at stake. So it was perfectly natural for my career route to lead me to become a scientific journalist. And in this field a journalist has to be a scientist because you can only get to the bottom of a subject when you have come to understand its many dimensions.

The range of subjects I covered became considerable. I also felt I was contributing to the democratic process by informing the reader about scientific facts. I satisfied my need to tell a small part of the story. Each time a different bit, as each subject must be approached from a different angle, adopting a particular slant on the subject so as to capture the reader's interest and enable him or her to follow the reasoning through to the end. This has to be geared towards a particular media, as well as the appropriate category of readers, listeners or viewers. It is rather like an astrophysicist who looks at all the many sources of light with his different instruments and then tells us about this world he sees through the end of his telescope. Strange, isn’t it?'