Obstacles to researchers’ mobility in the EU

03 Feb 2010 | News
Although the free mobility of researchers within the EU was one of the priorities of the ERA at its creation in 2000, many obstacles to mobility remain.

Although the free mobility of researchers within the EU was one of the priorities of the European Research Area (ERA) at its creation in 2000, many obstacles to mobility remain. Some of them are ingrained in the lack of flexibility national systems show towards foreign workers.  In Germany, Italy and Spain, what can only be described as opaque recruitment practices for senior positions are common. But researchers also complain about the everyday practical problems that they suffer when moving from one country to another for work.

German-born Eberhard Falck has lived in six different European countries doing research and pursuing his academic career. On his latest move in June 2009, Falck took up position as a full professor at Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines in France.  

Based on his long experience, Falck does not hesitate when saying, “The number one problem in mobility for researchers around Europe – and worldwide - is the lack of suitable pension and social security schemes.” At present there is no pension transfer system in place. “This is a problem that hasn’t been addressed by the European Commision yet,” Falck said.

No pension plans

In 2007, after long-running disagreements on its content, the Commission dropped a revised draft Directive on supplementary pension rights and transfer of retirement schemes across borders. But the need for the Directive remains as pressing as ever.  The scientific community urgently needs a pan-EU pension scheme targeted at its very particular career profile – where travelling to other countries is almost compulsory to improve skills.

“Many scientists don't start contributing to pension plans until they settle into a permanent position, which often is not until they reach the age of 35 or 40.  Others, who may have contributed to national pension plans while they were internationally mobile, have lost their benefits when they move from country to country,” explains Maria Leptin, director of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) in Heidelberg, Germany.

To overcome these problems, which may prevent talented scientists from changing lab, EMBO has just set up a pension scheme for postdoctoral researchers holding an EMBO Long-Term Fellowship. The programme started in 1 January and is already proving successful. Of the 146 new EMBO Fellows selected in Autumn 2009, almost half have already signed up for the pension plan. After this early success, Leptin is convinced that the availability of portable pension plans in Europe would encourage researcher mobility.

There are yet further bureaucratic roadblocks that need to be removed before mobility around Europe can be improved. For example, at the time of writing, and after six months living in Paris, Falck still does not have a social security number.

It took Keith Culver, a British/Canadian professor of innovation at UniverSud in Paris, nine months to get his social security number, because university administration staff did not really know how to help new foreign academics on very basic things.  And as Culver notes, “It can be difficult to get national health insurance without social security number.”

Culver also points to the difficulties of relocating families. “When partners need to move, this adds to all the other problems,” he says. It wasn’t easy for Culver’s wife to find a job. “Everything works based on informal networks”, he says, “But if a country wants to attract highly qualified senior scientists from another countries, it needs to help their spouses search for a suitable job.” In contrast, Culver says, many US universities help the spouses of newly hired researchers to find jobs.

Rigid systems

The UK, where almost 20 per cent of academics come from abroad, has a somewhat more flexible research environment than other EU countries. Furthermore, the government recognises the value of attracting scientists from overseas, and in December 2009 set out a strategy to encourage more people to come and carry out research in the country.

Burkhard Schafer of Edinburgh University's School of Law praises the flexibility of the system.  Schafer first trained in philosophy in Germany, and then changed to law and computing in the UK. “In Germany it’s very difficult to change academic interests if you don’t have a formal training in the subject,” he says.

Another example of the flexibility of the British system is that Buckhard does not hold a PhD, but this has not been an obstacle for him in developing his academic career as a lecturer and a researcher. His advancement has been based on merit, such as having a good academic publications record. But says, Buckhard, in spite of his good career in the UK, it would be difficult for him to go back to Germany and get a similar post at a university there.

One of the reasons for this is that senior positions at German universities are often offered to PhD holders after completion of a ‘higher doctorate’, which is an exam on a particular subject. This cumbersome process disadvantages many foreign applicants. A similar system exists in France.

The Bologna Process was intended to put an end to such hurdles at universities, through the creation of the European Higher Education Zone. However some scientists are sceptics of the actual implementation of the process. “The Bologna process can deal with the homogenisation of academic degrees, but can it deal with cultural differences?” asks Buckhard.

Some of Europe’s leading research universities acknowledge there remain many barriers to researcher mobility. In an investigation of the problem published today the League of European Research Universities points to a maze of different career paths in different countries in Europe, and says more should be done to improve the attractiveness of research careers.

Low salaries for researchers are also a problem. Elisa Lanciotti, an Italian physicist with a Physics degree from Bologna University in Italy, did her PhD in particle physics in Spain. After that, she spent three years in Geneva as a fellow at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN). Now, she works at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, but she cannot contemplate the possibility of going back home to work in Italy, mostly because of the low salary offered to researchers in Italy, compared to other European countries.

Home-grown preferred

Indeed, Italian researchers abroad often complain that academic tenure is hard enough to secure for researchers who never left Italy and have sympathetic ‘sponsors’ at the department. So, those who do not stay in the country find that returning years later to a good position back in Italy is almost impossible.  For the same reason, non-Italian researchers find it almost impossible to build an academic career in Italy.

The scenario is similar in France and Spain, where university academic posts are mostly taken up by national citizens, and anybody who moves away puts themselves at a disadvantage in terms of lost seniority, pension rights and social networks. It also means that French or Spanish academics who work abroad find it very difficult to move back again.

In addition, in Germany, France and Spain, lecturers are often civil servants – in other words, the jobs are only open to nationals, and permanent positions are only very rarely given to foreigners. “A lot of countries do not recognise foreign lecturers as being of equal status to those who are home-grown," Buckhard comments.

And so, ten years into the Bolgona Process and a decade since the ERA was conceived, the goal of a pan-European job market for researchers is still far from a reality. National governments and the EC need to dedicate still further effort, to create better opportunities for mobility, remove obstacles and harmonise career structures.

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