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Europe pumps €10 million into effort to combat brain drain

Education and research advocates in the European Union have dedicated millions of euros to a series of government programmes aimed at boosting job security and well-being for early-career scientists. By establishing an EU-wide database for tracking career progression, providing universities with incentives to develop policies that support their employees and working with industry to form partnerships, EU member states hope to staunch the flood of scientists seeking opportunities elsewhere.

In response to a widespread brain drain, the Council of the European Union agreed in May 2021 to prioritize working conditions for junior scientists, who face job insecurity, precarious funding and discrimination, bullying and harassment. Last year, attendees at a policy conference in Brussels began drafting a manifesto to highlight possible resolutions. That document was released last September and was presented to research commissioner Mariya Gabriel on 10 January.

Through a spokesperson, Gabriel says that the EU urgently needs to work with member states, universities, research organizations and industry to ensure that it can continue to recruit and retain researchers.

Many countries, many stories

Each of the EU’s 27 countries faces unique obstacles, making consensus about solutions difficult to achieve. In Germany, for example, 90% of academics work on short-term, temporary contracts, and in Italy, long-standing economic challenges have led to wage stagnation and a series of hiring freezes in academia. The European Research Council (ERC), a major source of research funding, has confirmed that it has noted a dip in the number of junior applicants in the past few grant cycles, which run once a year. “It is only very recent, so we cannot say that it is a trend,” a spokesperson says. They add that the ERC wants to continue to support junior researchers, but has not yet provided information on specific changes that it might implement if the decline continues.

Patricia González-Rodríguez, a junior faculty member at the University of Seville in Spain who researches Parkinson’s disease, says that, in her experience, many academics are leaving Spain for other nations, particularly the United States. The Spanish government paid for her education, including her PhD. After graduating in 2012, she did a postdoc in Seville, but felt she couldn’t progress further without international experience. So she left for a postdoc at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, studying the role of autophagy in neurodegenerative disease.

She then returned to Spain to be near her family, but says that many scientists remain abroad. Even now, in a relatively secure position, González-Rodríguez says she struggles to find funding for her students and staff members, a preoccupation that eats into her lab’s productivity. The current struggle, she notes, is trying to work out how to keep her laboratory technician, who is employed on a temporary contract, funded beyond May. “In just a few months, she may not have any job,” González-Rodríguez says.

The EU is not alone in having poor conditions for those early in their academic careers. Almost 50,000 students across the University of California’s ten campuses went on strike last year, demanding fair compensation, health-care and childcare subsidies — part of a broader push towards student unionization in the United States in response to poor working conditions. A survey published last year1 found that only 57% of 500 early-career scientists in Australia reported being satisfied with their job, echoing the findings of a handful of studies done in other countries. “The loss of junior or early-career investigators is happening around the world,” says González-Rodríguez. “It may be really bad here, but it’s not just Europe.”

Opportunities and partnerships

Attendees at the 10 January presentation announced several other initiatives, some of which were shaped by the document’s suggestions. The manifesto’s endorsing parties — which include more than 50 professional organizations and hundreds of scientists and members of parliament — say that more data are needed to track the career progression of EU scientists. To that end, manifesto co-author Manuel Heitor, director of the Technology Policy Lab at the University of Lisbon, says that a research and innovation careers observatory will be launched later this year to monitor jobs and working conditions.

Heitor and his colleagues also want to re-energize the EU’s funding landscape for junior scientists. Currently, the most prestigious fellowships, including the ERC Starting Grant and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions fellowships, award money to individual researchers for up to five years, and rarely result in a permanent position, Heitor says. To complement these awards, he is working with the European Commission to pilot a scheme that will award money directly to universities that are deemed to be supportive of early-career researchers. These awards, he says, will help universities to boost their numbers of tenure-track faculty members.

To assess which institutions will be eligible, Heitor says, the commission will need to draft criteria for evaluating what constitutes a ‘good’ research career for junior scientists, and a group is being formed for this purpose. He also says that any such assessment would probably consider how many early-career researchers an institution has on its staff, the level of research autonomy they have and whether the institution is offering opportunities to ‘at-risk’ scientists, such as those who are fleeing Ukraine.

The initiative, as yet unnamed, has a provisional budget of €10 million (US$10.7 million), with the potential for more investment over the next few years. If the programme proves successful, it will probably be included as a budget item in the next iteration of Horizon Europe — the EU’s research and innovation funding programme — with an operating budget on a par with the €16 billion of the ERC.

To make this financial leap, Heitor says, he’s looking into a co-funding mechanism that would solicit partnerships between the commission and national funding agencies or industry groups. Industry in particular, Heitor notes, should have a vested interest in funding basic research. “Companies benefit from the work that early-career researchers do, even if they’re not working in industry. We would ask that these companies dedicate funds towards supporting this work.”

Caution and optimism

Attila Dézsi, an early-career archaeologist who freelances for the University of Tübingen and the State Office for the Preservation of Monuments in Germany, says that any initiatives will need to be vetted carefully to ensure they don’t inadvertently create problems. In 2021, for example, Berlin tried to address a lack of opportunities for postdocs by requiring universities in the city-state to provide pathways to permanent employment. The law backfired, prompting hiring freezes and at least one resignation. “That really harmed the whole situation,” says Dézsi, who chose the freelance route after their PhD owing to the challenges of finding permanent work. “We need to be very thoughtful in what we do next.”

Heitor says that there is a push to firm up plans before the parliament holds its elections in 2024. “Our actions here mark a first step towards making research careers across Europe more attractive and sustainable,” he says.

Source: Nature