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

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Title  Migrating to the private sphere

Companies too have their researchers and Nobel prizewinners. From multinationals to small enterprises that spring up near university campuses, fascinating careers beckon in the private sector.   There is just one problem: the scarcity of posts and the generally low level of private investment in top-level human resources.   

Applied research on the powering of a mode of transport in Wildenrath (Germany).  ©Siemens
Applied research on the powering of a mode of transport in Wildenrath (Germany).


'Not for a moment did I want to return to academic research, because the private sector is just as motivating and there are also some teaching opportunities. There is a need to structure research in the framework of partnerships, joint projects and consortiums (especially European). This usually means there are targets and timetables to be respected, but I don’t see this as a constraint but as a stimulus,' explains Françoise Soussaline, a doctor of physics and biophysics. During her productive career, she has worked as an assistant at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris, a researcher at France’s national institute for health and medical research Inserm, as well as the Department of Biology at the Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique (CEA).

In 1985, Soussaline decided to take a big step. She founded Imstar, a company specialising in software and image analysis systems in the medical field. 'In my case, it was something quite different to landing a better post. It was more a question of embarking on a formidable experience in terms of personal development. The positive elements are clearly a sense of being able to choose your objectives – at least to a degree – and then working towards them, setting up teams, communicating your know-how and enthusiasm, and innovating at many different levels – technical, relational, entrepreneurial.' 

From the conceptual to the concrete
The enthusiasm of industrial researchers is not confined to those who start up their own companies. Scientists working in the private sector often find real job satisfaction from getting to grips with concrete applications. Enrico Piazza, who has a PhD in environmental sciences from the University of Florence, is an engineer with Park Air Systems (NO), which specialises in air transport communication, navigation and surveillance systems. There is no stress here finding funds or getting work published – 'We have a marketing department for that,' notes Piazza.   'I occasionally miss the prestige that goes with an academic post, or the freedom to pursue research without having to do it in my free time, but the private sector is more suited to my nature.' 

The right profile
Companies look for certain profiles, which are not always easy to find. A glance at the report of a meeting – hosted by oil giant Total group – of the Association Bernard Gregory (www.abg.asso.en/adherents/club/ce-4.html) makes that immediately clear. Although the private sector wants qualified researchers it also wants individuals able to communicate, convince, discuss and co-operate. 'A company does not recruit a manager without estimating his or her potential in terms of personal and career development. But it is precisely on this fundamental point that companies have certain qualms about PhDs,' states the report. This is why industry sometimes prefers to employ their researchers at an earlier stage and then train them in the specific skills they are looking for. Total currently finances 70 PhD students in France,  30 to 40%  of whom they will later hire.

Leena Lehtinen, a researcher in metallurgy at Outokumpu Kokkola Zinc (FI), has exactly this kind of 'private profile'. 'We are not only able to carry out experiments in the laboratory but also on a pilot scale, in which tests are part of our everyday work,' she explains. 'In particular, I appreciate being able to see the results of my research being put into practice. In addition, the close co-operation with customers is another fascinating aspect of working in a company.' 

Bridging the divide
So does this mean that European industry is well stocked with researchers? Not really. Fewer than half of all science and technology specialists are engaged in private sector research, compared with 80% in the United States and 70% in Japan. Ireland is above this average level (see graph). It is followed by Germany and the United Kingdom. In the UK, university-enterprise partnerships have assumed particular importance, with many co-operation initiatives in the realms of higher education. These include consultancy services for companies, specialist training, measures to facilitate the use of research results, and the creation of expert networks. British universities are seeking to instil a genuine business culture and are making every effort to bridge the private-public sector divide. The result has been a continuous increase in the number of PhD holders being hired by UK companies: 30% of science PhDs graduates in 1997 chose a private sector career, compared with 22% in 1994.

Private sector exodus
However, the latest figures from the UK Scientific Research Council show that quite a large part of the work of these private-sector PhD holders is not related to science and technology at all. In 1998, more than half of all highly qualified scientists recruited by companies were hired in the fields of management, production or finance. 'This means that the exodus from the public sector represents a real – and increasing – loss of human resources in the field of scientific innovation,' point out the authors of the report entitled Human Resources in RTD. (1) Another study by the Research Council (2000/2001) shows that just 52% of science PhD holders in the UK continue to engage in bona fide research following their doctorate.(2)

Switching science
Leading private sector players do not, however, take a negative view of what could be seen as another kind of 'brain drain'. 'These opportunities to change career course that industry is able to offer its researchers are very interesting for those who, at a given moment, envisage ending their research work,' asserts Léopold Demiddeleer, director of corporate and new business development R&D at Solvay Research & Technology (BE). 'They then move into the field of production or marketing (product development) or join the patent department. In a company whose activities range from design to application, an engineer or researcher can specialise in technical areas and why not join the management team at a production plant?'

Researchers themselves sometimes take unexpected directions from the outset. Marco Albani, a doctor of physics, works in the financial department of Caboto, a subsidiary of Banca Intesa, Italy's leading investment bank. 'It is only recently that physicists and economists have engaged in dialogue. The field of econophysics applies methods of statistical physics to finance. Risk analysis and certain computing techniques are derived from physics. In my job, I use 100% of the knowledge I acquired during my studies by applying it to the field of banking.'

(1) Benchmarking National R&D Policies: Human Resources in RTD, Strata-Etan expert working group, Final report, 21.08.02

(2) In Denmark, on the other hand, 49% of science and 37% of engineering PhD holders employed in the private sector are mainly engaged in research tasks. Between 15% and 20% of them move to other activities in the course of their careers. 

Printable version

  Michèle Gué: private-public

A researcher in the pharmaceutical industry for the past 12 years, Michèle Gué was sent by her company to work on a post-doctorate in the United States. All in all, Gué’s career has traced an unusual path.   ...

  Michèle Gué: private-public

Michèle Gué
Michèle Gué
A researcher in the pharmaceutical industry for the past 12 years, Michèle Gué was sent by her company to work on a post-doctorate in the United States. All in all, Gué’s career has traced an unusual path.  

'This experience was not only of use to me personally, but also for the company and the host university which drew up the research contracts,' she explains. In the USA,   Gué joined the team at an international laboratory. 'Working with colleagues who do not speak the same language or adopt the same approach to research was sometimes unsettling, but always enriching. When I returned I felt more European than French.' 

Shortly afterwards, the company was taken over and her post disappeared. That led to 20 months out of work. 'The economic situation caused me to point my career in a new direction.' After passing the necessary examinations, Gué became a teacher and researcher at the Université de Montpellier II (FR) in 1999.

Her particular route has equipped her to understand both the public and private spheres, to build bridges and generally improve communication between the two – especially through students. 'Universities are too closed to the private sector and industry is too coy in its contacts with universities. A number of prejudices remain on both sides and – even if the situation is improving – it is difficult to break down the barriers. Personally, I want to show young people the opportunities which lie outside universities and the possible bridges between public and private research.'  

One means of doing so is by organising doctoriales®  These are annual seminars attended by PhD holders in all disciplines and company representatives. The aim is to increase awareness of multidisciplinarity and the various forms of research partnerships with industry. At these seminars, young people work together in teams to set up an innovation project and present it to a jury of professionals. 'A questionnaire is handed out to the participants to assess their impressions and professional ambitions. After a week of getting acquainted with the world of industry, they acquire a different vision of their post-doctoral future. The percentage intent on an academic post falls significantly,' she notes.