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EU R&D programme to raise researcher salaries in low-income countries

EU-funded researchers in poorer member states will get higher wages after politicians argued the current remuneration structure fuels an east-to-west brain drain. But it is not clear how much the increase will cost - or how it will be funded

Carlos Moedas, EU Research Commissioner
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The European Commission is increasing the salaries of EU-funded researchers in low-income countries to match national pay rates, and will offer additional bonuses of up to €8,000 a year.

The new rule, designed to stop a brain drain from east to west, will apply retroactively, covering projects funded since 2014, the year the €77 billion Horizon 2020 R&D programme started.

Any top-ups that researchers previously received as additional remuneration will now be treated as part of their basic salary.

It is not clear where the extra money to pay higher salaries will come from. Given budget pressures in Brussels, it appears unlikely that the Commission would allocate any additional money to Horizon 2020 to cover the costs. But how much impact this would have on Horizon 2020, or on what parts of the programme, was not disclosed. When asked, Commission staff said the overall cost is, “complicated to calculate.”

Until the increase, announced on Monday, salaries paid through Horizon 2020 were tied to the local basic income of teaching staff and researchers. This not only created an obstacle to attracting foreign talent to countries including Romania and Poland, where monthly salaries are on average a third of Germany or France, but also left EU-funded researchers earning less than counterparts funded through national programmes.

That is because researchers can supplement their university wages with various bonuses for activities such as publishing papers or writing reviews. The Horizon 2020 reimbursement system did not take bonuses into account, meaning EU-funded projects were less attractive and salaries lower. 

As a result, a researcher in Poland could earn more from a grant awarded by National Science Centre than through the extremely competitive and prestigious European Research Council (ERC).

The overall effect was demotivating for researchers in low-income countries, said EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas.

“It was an unfair situation – an unintended consequence of rules changed after the last research programme which a lot of people were very upset about,” said Moedas. In Horizon 2020’s predecessor, Framework Programme 7, salaries were calculated on the basis of the total gross pay of the researcher.

The salary increases will not require the approval of the European Parliament or Council and should boost interest – already extremely high – in Horizon 2020, Moedas said.

Pressure to increase Horizon 2020 salaries grew last November when Romanian MEPs sent letters of complaint to EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

In one of these letters, centre-left politician Sorin Moisă argued that the current rules undermined the European project, which is already looking shaky, by contributing to the east-to-west brain drain.

“Top researchers should expect to be rewarded in ways that are comparable with what colleagues elsewhere earn,” Moisă said. Money from Horizon 2020 should help keep the technical elite of Romania, “At home, benefitting its economy, universities and other research institutions. Europe should be part of that effort, rather than hindering it.”

Heads of government in at least two EU states lobbied Moedas to fix the problem. Science ministers from former Soviet-bloc countries including Hungary, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia and Latvia have also pressed for a change for over a year.

Speaking to Science|Business earlier this month, Daniel David, Vice-Rector for research in Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, said the rules had a “catastrophic impact”.

As one example, a group of chemistry researchers passed on a Horizon 2020 grant agreement worth about €300,000. “For what they’re paid, it’s not worth the effort," David told Romanian news website Hotnews.

Romanian MEP Daniel Buda welcomed the move by the Commission, but acknowledged that “Romania still has a lot of catching up to do,” to close the research gap with western Europe.

Along with Moisă, Buda pointed to “grave inequities” in Horizon 2020 salaries in a letter he sent to Juncker in November last year.

“Researchers who won [Horizon 2020] grants do not want them, or they seek to move the projects [to] Western Europe,” the letter reads. Buda warned Juncker that if not solved, the problem would accelerate, “European inequalities.”

Pay gap persists

The change will help low-income countries, even if it is not the end of the problems they face, said Jan Palmowksi, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, a university lobby group based in Brussels.

“An extra €8,000, awarded over the course of one year, will make a difference to a researcher: but it will still be difficult, for instance, to lure a world-class researcher from a high-income – and high-salary – country to work in a low-income member state,” he said.

The problem of a stubborn east-west pay gap, and how to reward researchers in different member states with different labour and living costs, remains.

“And it cannot be addressed easily,” said Palmowksi. “For instance, if you were to liberalise the salary levels completely, you would get massive distortions in university pay scales depending on whether someone is working – often on the same subject or in the same department – on a national or on an EU grant.”

There are several mechanisms in Horizon 2020 that seek to reduce the research gap.

One example is ‘twinning’, a concept which sees scientists in central and eastern Europe countries pair-up with better-equipped research institutes in western member states. This could, for example, take the form of a staff exchange, a workshop or a joint summer school.

Another is ‘teaming’, a research-buddy scheme where Europe’s leading scientific institutions work with labs in less-developed regions to jointly create new research centres.

David agrees that it might be a good time for his country to re-think the way basic salaries are calculated, suggesting that the government could do more to finance researcher positions in universities, something “which is impossible right now.” Under the current rules, associate professors, lecturers, assistant professors in Romanian universities receive a low basic salary which is usually complemented by bonuses when they work on research projects. 

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Related subjects: Eastern Europe, Horizon 2020

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In October 2016, the Science|Network of universities, companies and innovation organisations gathered in Brussels to debate the future of EU R&D programmes. The result: A profusion of ideas, recommendations and warnings for the future of EU research and innovation.