| What’s at stake?
Researchers are the most important resource of research systems, and, as in other areas of activity, people are a key determinant of performance. The quality of the research produced depends mostly on the expertise and skills of the researchers, both individually and collectively, and the conditions given to them to perform their work.
Many OECD countries are preoccupied with the future of academic research careers. Their concerns relate to the deterioration of working conditions of many researchers, lack of diversity in terms of gender and representation of different groups in society, unequal opportunities in access and advancement in careers, and declining capacity of research systems to attract the best national and international talent.
The move away from core basic funding to project-based funding is making research systems increasingly dependent on a cohort of junior staff employed on casual contracts. Furthermore, the context for funding and the development of research assessment regimes puts emphasis on the short-term output of research, which places immense pressure on early career researchers to publish.
The traditional academic career path can no longer absorb the increasing number of doctorate holders in many systems, which is heightening career competitiveness to extreme levels and contributing to greater precarity. A possible solution is to prepare doctorate holders for diverse careers beyond the traditional academic career path. However, the attractiveness of alternative careers vis-a-vis the academic career path may take away the best talent from academic research, and impair the long-term quality of the science produced.
The OECD Global Science Forum is undertaking a project on reducing the precarity of research careers. Its main objective is to identify policies and procedures that could support better strategic planning and management of research careers in the public sector, promoting inclusion and diversity, while increasing the quality of the science produced and the well-being of researchers. The project focuses on a particular group of researchers, the Research Precariat. These researchers are mainly postdoctoral researchers, waiting to enter the academic career as a researcher in a public research organisation, or the professoriate in a university.
See also the Researchers’ career insecurity needs attention and reform now, says international coalition (nature.com) and OECD urges reform of junior researcher jobs (researchprofessionalnews.com).
The Research Precariat can be defined as the population of researchers with a doctoral degree that hold temporary positions
without any commitment to renew their positions or transform those positions into long-term or permanent contracts.
| What’s the context?
Various drivers of change are affecting contemporary research work. Among these are stagnation in public funding, which has led academic research organisations to seek greater flexibility in staffing costs, to adapt to changes in the level and sources of funding. Furthermore, many governments concentrate research funding in a few “world-class universities”, whose research prowess rests on a few tenured star researchers that head teams populated by postdoctoral and doctoral researchers.
The number of doctorates awarded, and thus those trying to join a research career, may also be disproportionate to the availability of positions in research systems, further diminishing the collective bargaining capacity of researchers and exacerbating the precarity of early career researchers.
These trends are having an impact on research careers, with an increase in the number of researchers in non-standard forms of employment, i.e. employment that is fixed-term and without permanent or continuous employment prospects. Many countries are experiencing the emergence of a striking dual labour market, with the coexistence of a shrinking protected research elite and a large precarious academic class that is now in the majority in many systems. Some are equating this class to an “academic proletariat”, thus the emergence of the expression “research precariat”.
These factors coincide with the rapid worsening of working conditions of postdoctoral researchers in many places. The postdoctoral apprenticeship stage has become longer and more arduous, as the bottleneck between non-permanent and permanent positions has become tighter. Working conditions are marked by long hours, severe dependency on senior researchers, lack of recognition and visibility for work performed, stress caused by job-insecurity and job dissatisfaction, constraints on academic freedom, and deterioration of physical and mental wellbeing.
| What needs to be done?
Governments can use a number of policy levers, in collaboration with all relevant research stakeholders, to improve the governance and management of research careers in the public sector and promote inclusion and diversity, while increasing the quality of the science produced and the well-being of researchers.
Governments can reform research careers through regulation, such as general employment law, equal opportunities legislation, national career statutes, and collective bargaining mechanisms.
Governments can change the way they fund research, either through the allocation of funds to institutions or directly to research teams or individuals. Types of funding have an impact on research careers, depending on the weight of basic core funding vs. competitive funding, and the existence, for instance, of targeted funding for early career researchers.
Governments can collect, analyse and publish information on researchers and research careers, via regular collection of administrative and registry data by statistical agencies, as well as national surveys of researchers (e.g. national surveys on the careers of doctorate holders). The information can be used to inform the design, implementation and evaluation of policy. It can also have a direct effect on the behaviour of institutions through naming and shaming to discourage bad practice.
Governments can serve as role models as direct providers of research services through their research units. They can also facilitate policy coordination on research careers among relevant stakeholders via a variety of agencies, such as research councils, funding agencies, observatories, mobility agencies, and umbrella coordinating bodies. Governments can promote policy analysis on research careers via analytical units in ministries, and by establishing government reviews, ad hoc task forces, commissions and public inquiries on research careers.
| What are countries doing?
Information from the STIP Compass show that countries have recently introduced several policy instruments with a bearing on research careers. Countries have invested on fellowships and postgraduate loans and scholarships for the training of researchers, and on project grants, and to a lesser extent on institutional funding for public research. They have also enacted national strategies, agendas and plans on doctoral level training, research careers and gender equality in research, including regulation and incentives on mobility.
More importantly, there is evidence that countries are starting to address the precarity of research careers.
The European Charter for Researchers provides a recommendation of good practice for researchers, employers, and funders of researchers in the EU as a key policy to make research an attractive career. It has been adopted by more than a thousand organisations across Europe.
The federal government in Germany funds a “tenure track programme” for a thousand professorships (providing EUR 1 billion for the period 2017–2032). The “women professors program” finances several full professorships for higher education institutions with convincing strategies for ensuring gender equality.
In China, the government has issued guidelines to address the “publish or perish” mentality in the assessment of academics and universities, with consequences for funding decisions.
In the Netherlands, the national employment regulator SZW is inspecting the practices of Dutch universities regarding “structural overtime” of academics, and demanding a plan of action from universities to address the problem. The association of universities and the main research funding agencies are making significant changes “to make more room for different academic talents and to recognise and reward academic work on all aspects that are relevant to our time”, a change that is being followed up as well by the European University Association.
Wellcome, an important funder of science in the UK, has promoted a survey of researchers to better understand and address the pressures of working in research, to foster a more creative, supportive and inclusive research environment.
The Canada Research Chairs Program invests up to CAD 295 million per year to attract and retain some of the most accomplished and promising minds.
Japan funds the Leading Initiative for Excellent Young Researchers (LEADER) whose objective is to provide stable and independent positions for young researchers in new areas of research.
Nature has launched its first-ever survey dedicated to postdoctoral researchers around the world, available in five different languages. It addresses job satisfaction, career progression, working hours and financial compensation.
| What’s the outlook?
Governments and funders are starting to express concerns about the precarity of research careers and taking policy initiatives to change the practices of universities and research performing organisations, towards more open-ended and full-time academic employment, more inclusive recruitment and recognition arrangements. These will have the effect of making academic research careers more attractive to a wider pool of talent and drive the quality of science.
A big open question emerging from the COVID-19 crisis is how to protect researchers on fixed-term employment that are at risk of losing their jobs. Will research organisations be able to extend their contracts? Will researchers be eligible for state funds to support those affected by the crisis? Will they be entitled to unemployment benefits? Will they be prevented from accessing permanent positions due to a retraction of hiring? Or, more positively, will they be engaged in the accelerated research effort to tackle the crisis?