Change of approach is designed to help smaller EU countries attract more scientists from abroad and freshen up research teams
Improved rules for hiring and managing international staff aim to help research institutions in central and eastern Europe to increase diversity, promote meritocracy and attract talent from across Europe.
These improvements will inevitably translate in higher research performance, according to Eliška Handlířová, head the director’s office at the Central European Institute of Technology (CEITEC) in the Czech Republic.
Two years ago, CEITEC adopted a new recruitment policy requiring a human resources manager to be involved in all hiring procedures. The change gave Handlířová access to data and she was able to evaluate how many people apply, who they are and where they are coming from.
Handlířová is a social scientist by training and was first hired to prepare a gender equality plan for CEITEC. The institute was one of the first Czech organisations to have one in place, and ahead of a requirement introduced by the European Commission that Horizon Europe grant applicants to prove their host institution is mindful of gender inequality. Handlířová then decided to stay on to help the institution identify broader issues with its recruitment practices.
The institute is Czech Republic’s attempt to build a research and technology ecosystem based on western standards. Compared to the performance of counterparts in east and west, “CEITEC is somewhere in the middle,” said Handlířová.
CEITEC is part of Alliance4Life, a group of twelve life science research institutions from eleven countries in central and eastern Europe. The group hopes they can work together and come up with a common set of rules for managing and transforming research institutions, thereby improving their performance and competitiveness in EU funding competitions.
Researchers in countries that joined the EU after 2004 get a very small percentage of the total funding available through the Commission’s framework research programmes. Between 2014 and 2020, these countries were awarded less than 6% of the Horizon 2020 budget, in part because research institutions in the region are not as competitive as western counterparts.
The poor showing is in danger of being repeated again in the Horizon Europe programme, but more optimist observers in central and eastern Europe would say a greater national focus on R&D performance, paired with increased EU funding for boosting excellence in the east, could move the needle.
Building an international environment
Nada Čikeš, professor emeritus at the University of Zagreb is also involved in Alliance4Life’s efforts to improve recruitment. She hopes change in institutional approaches will help smaller countries like Croatia attract more researchers from abroad. “We have a very low number of researchers that have come from abroad, and only for limited projects,” Čikeš told Science|Business.
The University of Zagreb recently got EU money to build a new biomedical research institute and, in addition to buying new equipment, Čikeš said the project will also cover the implementation of a new approach to recruitment, so the institute can attract talent from “eminent institutions” abroad. “I do believe that this is possible,” she said.
Back in the Czech Republic, CEITEC has implemented new rules and practices to help managers recruit researchers from abroad. A new ‘welcome office’ manager was hired to assist international recruits in finding their way around the country and dealing with formalities such as visas, renting a house and finding childcare. Formal documents by CEITEC institution are now being issued in English and Czech.
Handlířová said the feedback from international staff was great, as they felt more welcome in a country where even police officers are not willing to speak a foreign language. At CEITEC, 86% of postdocs and 52% of PhD students come from abroad.
Many eastern European research institutions find it difficult to improve their performance and standing in EU funding competitions, due to poor management and communist heritage. Handlířová said many research organisations are breeding grounds for homogeneous teams that avoid opening themselves to talent from the outside. “If you do not have clear rules that are transparent, rules with unconscious bias, the risk is that you will find people with similar values and experience,” she said.
This can happen in two ways. One is inside an institution, when a PhD student becomes a staff scientist in a research group, then ends up leading that group. The other happens inside a country, where researchers move across different institutions and roles, but they rarely move outside the country or welcome colleagues from abroad.
According to Handlířová, CEITEC has adopted a new career system that prevents this type of inbreeding. For example, a PhD graduate can no longer apply for a postdoc position at CEITEC. The change was very difficult and required years of internal discussions. “It was really a revolution,” she said.
However, other research institutions in the country are not rushing to adopt similar measures. CEITEC is willing to share its expertise in human resources for research, but so far “just a few institutions asked us what we do,” said Handlířová.