Riitta Mustonen, Vice President for Research:
Attraction, care, mobility
The European Commission wants to remove any remaining obstacles to achieving a genuine and functioning European Research Area (ERA) by the end of 2013. It has been suggested that a poorly functioning ERA is the greatest threat for European science and, thereby, for European competitiveness.
The Commission’s scolding is based on the results of a public consultation on the ERA, its problems and development, which was launched to gather views from research, innovation and science stakeholders across Europe. The consultation was conducted in autumn 2011, and a total of nearly 600 responses from all EU Member States were received.
The findings of the consultation were presented in January 2012. The Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, said that if the obstacles constraining the fully functional ERA are not removed by voluntary measures, the use of legislative sanctions against non-compliant Member States is possible. The Commission will issue its statement concerning the situation in the summer, and during the following two years, the actions taken by Member States to improve the situation will be closely monitored.
The consultation included ideas and opinions on the ERA from several viewpoints: research careers and mobility, cross-border partnerships, research infrastructures, knowledge transfer and open access, international cooperation, gender equality and ethical issues, as well as the monitoring of ERA cooperation as a whole. The Commission lists the following challenges as priorities requiring the most urgent action: the attractiveness of research careers, the process of attracting researchers and researcher mobility. Below, I’ll address these issues in particular.
The findings of the consultation make for very familiar reading. Europe seems to have problems attracting researchers and also providing them with the skills required by the private sector. While Europe produces leading researchers, it fails to effectively attract foreign researchers to move in or native researchers to return to Europe. Generally speaking, European researchers have received a quality education and our doctoral programmes are of a high standard. It appears, however, that the basic degree curricula do not sufficiently respond to the needs of the emerging fields.
In the consultation, the public sector was reprimanded as an employer: the working conditions and career prospects of public sector researchers are considered to be poorer when compared to other expert tasks within the public sector.
Apart from the weak financial situation of universities and research institutes in general, the most significant reasons why a career as a researcher is viewed as unattractive include the limited availability of positions and the low pay. A better collaboration between the academic world and the private sector might also increase the popularity of the public sector.
The results of the consultation emphasise the necessity of taking action in order to improve the attractiveness of the research career. We need competitive salary development, proper social security, longer employment relationships instead of short-term work contracts, as well as measures to improve gender equality. Research career models that allow for the reconciliation of work and family life are suitable for women in particular.
Mobility issues are widely acknowledged in Europe. According to the consultation, the lack of portability of publicly funded grants is an impediment to international mobility. This is explained by, among other things, the funding agencies’ wish to control the movements of their money and the research organisations’ willingness to retain their researchers.
The lack of an open and transparent recruitment policy in Europe was also criticised. Protectionism and even nepotism were causes of serious concern. The hope is for research organisations to gain an understanding of the import of strategies concerning researcher resources.
The outcome of the consultation once again supports the view that the cumbersome and complex immigration regulations and practices are hindering researchers who come from non-European countries. There is no ‘researcher passport’ that would facilitate the immigration and mobility of researchers coming from non-European countries.
What about the situation in Finland?
The recent university reform gave Finnish universities greater autonomy and strategic power, which is visible in, for example, their independent recruiting policies. The universities have, indeed, stepped up in terms of recruiting foreign researchers. Nevertheless, it seems that a common national strategy for recruitment and mobility has yet to be found.
In Europe, there are examples in which the coordination of researcher mobility functions well on the national level. Cooperation across borders takes place, too. For example, the regions of Saarland in Germany, Lorraine in France, Luxembourg and Liege in Belgium share a researcher mobility initiative that offers cross-border funding, just like the EU Commission wishes, and mobility services that benefit all participants.
The problems experienced by researchers coming from non-European countries are well known in Finland as well. Research communities, however, are powerless in resolving this issue; in other words, there is a need for a clearly more cooperative approach between national authorities responsible for visas and permits.
The Academy of Finland wishes to support international mobility as part of all research funding in addition to mobility funding based on bilateral agreements and the FiDiPro programme. The Academy encourages researchers to boldly use the research funding they have received to pay for a research period abroad (or outside their own research organisation). For example, a multi-year grant for an Academy Research Fellow or a Postdoctoral Researcher can be planned to include a period abroad with a safe return to Finland. Academy Projects, on the other hand, facilitate foreign recruiting and mobility, so that the researcher exchange will benefit the research team as a whole. The Academy also opens thematic research project calls jointly with partners from different countries (the US, China, India, Russia etc.), thus offering opportunities for international mobility.
The Academy encourages Finnish researchers to apply for foreign research funding. Finnish researchers would have excellent opportunities to obtain, for instance, more ERC funding and Marie Curie mobility grants.
Modern research funding agencies in Europe take seriously the goal of advancing mobility and pursue to further develop their funding schemes to support mobility. This is also true for the Academy of Finland. From the funding organisation’s viewpoint, however, problems still arise from the complex agreement practices of the receiving research organisation, thus hindering the genuine portability of funding. Therefore, the work must continue.
Where do we go from here?
It is believed that a genuine, unified European Research Area will play a huge role in the currently prevailing economic situation, as Europe is craving new seeds of growth. Speaking at the conference on the outcomes of the consultation in January, EU Commission Vice-President, Member of Commission responsible for Economic and Monetary Affairs, Olli Rehn stressed the necessity for well functioning research cooperation and a fully operational ERA as a vital condition for growth in Europe.
The establishment of the ERA is recorded in the Europe 2020 growth strategy, which sets ambitious goals for the European Union in terms of employment, education, the prevention of marginalisation, as well as climate and energy issues. A functioning and efficient ERA is part of the flagship initiative ‘Innovation Union’, which is included in the growth strategy.
In February 2011, the EU Council concluded that all obstacles and impediments to the ERA shall be overcome by the end of 2013. The Commission is now conducting negotiations with all major stakeholders and actors as regards the topics to be jointly agreed. It shall rapidly identify those challenges and problems that all the stakeholders and actors, regardless of country, can commit to resolving. The Commission refers to these as ‘ERA pacts’. Among the negotiation partners mentioned by the Commission are umbrella organisations representing European research and science, such as Science Europe and EUA (European University Association). From the viewpoint of a national funding organisation, one cannot but hope that the discussion is broad and that any aspects that possibly affect the national legislation are considered in advance.
In conclusion, the essential elements of the consultation that concern research careers can be crystallised into three words: attraction, care and mobility. Science policy-makers, as well as universities and research institutes, are tasked to enhance the attractiveness of research as a career and to take care of researchers and their working conditions. Human resources are the foundation of all research, and it is not possible to generate cutting-edge research without top researchers, nor without competition or cooperation. Promoting and facilitating mobility is part of being attractive and maintaining care. Individual researchers and the research community shall, for their part, endeavour to internalise the meaning of mobility to scientific progress. The process also calls for independent motivation and activity.
Vice President for Research
Academy of Finland