Official Journal of the European Union

C 175/81

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament — Better careers and more mobility: a European partnership for researchers’

COM(2008) 317 final

(2009/C 175/14)

On 23 May 2008 the European Commission decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 262 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the:

Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament — Better careers and more mobility: a European partnership for researchers

COM(2008) 317 final.

The Section for the Single Market, Production and Consumption, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 6 November 2008. The rapporteur was Mr SALVATORE.

At its 449th plenary session, held on 3 and 4 December 2008 (meeting of 3 December), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 176 votes in favour and two abstentions.

1.   Conclusions and recommendations

1.1   The European Economic and Social Committee is in full agreement with the Commission's communication, whose underlying principles highlight the strategic role of an effective European Research Area when regarding economic competitiveness and knowledge development. The launch of a European partnership for better careers for researchers and greater incentives for researcher mobility could bring this objective within reach. This would help to stem the brain drain and then attract top researchers to the EU area.

The Committee agrees on the importance of Member States taking decisive steps to adopt open, transparent and merit-based recruitment procedures and to remove all barriers to the free movement of researchers within the EU. From this perspective, the EURAXESS information system, which posts EU research job vacancies and information about research funding opportunities on the internet, is a valuable tool. For the system to be properly implemented bodies that could benefit must be encouraged to use it effectively.

1.2.1   From recruitment to the end of researchers' careers, merit should be based not only on the number and quality of publications, but also on scientific results. Consideration should be given to innovative capacity, particularly in the early phase, and, in keeping with allotted tasks, to organisational and management skills as careers advance. Experience in international partnerships should always be highly valued.

1.3   It is essential for researchers' professional growth that all opportunities for mobility be seized. However, legal and administrative barriers currently make this difficult. Mobility, understood as a period of time spent in another country or region or in another public or private research institute, or a change of discipline or sector, should be seen as making a precious contribution to researchers' professional development, and as such encouraged with financial/social security related incentives, and balanced with family needs.

1.4   The often precarious nature of research roles must be made a thing of the past. Measures aimed at ensuring contract continuity and promoting social security and entitlement to various forms of social provision and their transfer, should researchers move, must therefore be strongly encouraged. This issue can penalise researchers heavily, making it very difficult for them to rise to high positions.

1.5   The active participation of the relevant bodies of both sides of industry is needed in order to help deliver these objectives comprehensively and promptly.

2.   Introduction

2.1   This Communication (COM(2008) 317) is based on the principles of the Lisbon Strategy and seeks to build a European partnership for improving the careers of researchers, deemed to be the fundamental and primary core for developing a knowledge-based economy and society.

2.2   The ever more complex, sudden and unprecedented societal changes of our times call for policies that pay greater attention to developing, and therefore passing on, knowledge.

2.3   These changes are connected with the growth of forms of knowledge development that transcend national borders. The exchange of knowledge, and with it economic exchanges, require new forms of regulation capable of managing this change within a shared cultural context: a European seedbed.

3.   General comments

3.1   The aim of making Europe a more attractive place to conduct research activities must be placed within an integrated framework of researcher support policies. This process must provide for the intelligent and harmonised participation of Member States, not based on voluntary involvement alone as is the case under the current legal framework.

3.2   The Committee welcomes this new approach which, while attempting to take account of the present situation, eschews over-ambitious measures and, treading previously covered ground, asks Member States to take rapid, measurable initiatives to

establish transparent recruitment procedures;

meet the social security and supplementary pensions needs of mobile researchers;

provide attractive employment and working conditions; and

enhance the training, skills and experience of researchers.

These activities should be carried out with the involvement of both sides of industry.

3.3   Over the years, the efforts of the EU institutions have been considerable. We need only think back to the origins of the European Research Area as set out in COM(2000) 6 final on 18 January 2000, the European Council's objective to make Europe the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010, the early measures for researchers, and finally the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers. These efforts highlight how central the research system is to promoting innovation and giving researchers a vitally important role to play.

3.4   As matters stand, the European Research Area must be given the best possible chances of organising an extremely competitive and dynamic environment, where human resources have better long-term prospects throughout their career paths.

4.   Specific comments

4.1   The Commission binds the European Charter's definition of a researcher (already outlined in 2004 by the EESC), namely: ‘Professionals engaged in the conception or creation of new knowledge, products, processes, methods and systems, and in the management of the projects concerned’, together with the function of transferring new knowledge. In this context, however, researchers must be encouraged by institutions to publish the results of their research in order to provide authoritative sources for communications specialists, so as to enable the non-specialist public to understand scientific arguments more clearly, particularly when they might have a major impact on public opinion (health, food risks, environmental emergencies, etc.).

4.2   The EESC therefore advocates identifying specific priorities for organising a favourable and attractive European context for people employed in research.

4.3   First of all, emphasis is placed on the importance of taking decisive steps towards Member States adopting open, transparent and merit-based recruitment procedures. Failure to guarantee a maximum of information on the recruitment and selection of staff would result in a system that was far from open. This type of information should be freely available and accessible. To this end, the Committee fully supports and hopes to see the development of the EURAXESS information system, that can pool and thus help match researcher supply and demand in the various institutes and European projects. The completion of this information system will require the full support of the Member States and the various research organisations, and a commitment from the latter to placing all the information on research posts and projects on the network.

4.4   We then need to know how to reward merit and promote better working and training conditions during the early part of research careers. We need to change tack. Prolonged insecurity following a challenging and rigorous course of research-oriented studies lead researchers to abandon this career and this does not create conditions for retaining or fostering the best talent. The way to foster talent is through innovative training paths aimed at securing high quality research and enabling researchers to develop the skills they need to take up positions of leadership.

4.5   Merit should be assessed not only on the basis of the number and quality of publications, but evaluated on the basis of job descriptions, together with the following skills:

research management;

degree of innovation;

teaching and supervision activities;

team work;

international partnerships;

knowledge transfer;

fund raising for research;

publishing and communicating scientific results;

business experience and potential application of research results in industry;

patents, development activities or inventions;

creativity and independence.

Lastly, in view of the atypical nature of researchers' employment contracts, they should not be penalised for possible interruptions in their careers.

4.6   The atypical nature of the researcher's role, summed up by job insecurity, must not be allowed to have a negative impact on the quality of researchers' working and family lives. All forms of mobility, especially geographical mobility, which is desirable for professional growth, should be facilitated. Mobility is a powerful factor in the development of the free movement of knowledge and, moreover, it contributes towards training and cultural development for workers and the research system.

4.7   For this reason, the EESC advocates measures for facilitating networking between researchers from different backgrounds. This is the only way to increase the benefits of and opportunities for discussion, making mobility a factor of knowledge. It would be useful here to compare the more obvious differences between research systems in Europe and the USA, which is able to attract and hold on to talent, so as to adopt the more positive aspects of this model and adapt them to the European context, beginning, for instance, with recruitment procedures and then moving on to assessment and incentive systems for researchers' careers.

4.8   Building the European Research Area will therefore mean not only supporting the transfer from one country or institute to another of individual researchers' financing, but also sparking a virtuous cycle whereby bodies will find it to their advantage to recruit people with the best scientific qualifications. Researchers, like other categories where mobility is required, should be supported at European level, by means of practical incentives (payment and benefits) to move to new places, rather than obstructed as is often the case currently (causing a brain drain). In this respect, a mechanism used widely in Anglo-American universities is the allocation of additional ‘overhead funding’, in proportion to the research funding itself, by the financing body to the institution hosting the funded researcher.

4.9   On the other hand, researchers interested in mobility are often simultaneously in precarious contractual situations: this combination of factors (making mobility more uncertain), also leads to further difficulties in terms of welfare insurance. The Committee therefore welcomes the Commission's proposal that researchers and their employers should have easy and full access to specific information on social security in the various Member States. Social protection must be guaranteed, and the acquisition and transfer of rights to all forms of social insurance, including supplementary pensions, must be secured. Measures designed to secure contract continuity for researchers must also be given robust support, since whereas a precarious career pattern may seem natural for a few years early in a career, it can have a stultifying effect on researchers over the age of 40, offering little independence and little access to management positions.

4.10   The differentiation of research career paths should also be promoted: by developing non-traditional channels on leaving research careers, enabling individual researchers to use their skill-set in more rewarding ways. There is no contradiction with the concept of strengthening links between other public administration sectors and the research sector; for instance, establishing links between academia and research would give academic institutions access to excellent resources such as research personnel involved in quality and diversified teaching careers. Similarly, secondary school teachers with greater awareness of research themes, could take part in this strategic sector, offering input of a cultural nature while also enriching the body of knowledge transferred to pupils.

4.11   Whereas research is the powerhouse of development, its links with industry are growing continually stronger. Research in industry and high-tech innovative companies must drive economic development forwards. An integrated system linking research, innovation and industry should therefore be set up and maintained. Fruitful exchanges between professionals from the public and private sectors should therefore be encouraged. This exchange is often hindered by differing human resource management policies. The hope is that legislation in individual Member States and national employment agreements will soon succeed in narrowing the gap by means of specific measures (tax incentives, traineeships, mobility, Community programmes, etc.).

4.12   Encouragement should also be given to those types of business (start-ups and spin-offs) where the skills acquired by researchers can be applied to innovative business activities. Support might for instance include favourable conditions from the banks (or public finance facilities), as well as welfare and tax incentives.

4.13   Finally, the EESC welcomes the framework programme adopted by the Commission in COM(2008)317. The 2009 national action plan to be adopted by Member States should immediately, once the relevant stakeholders have been consulted, focus on the declared objectives in the light of the existing EU legal framework, current good practices, and also those that Member States have in common.

4.14   With the involvement of both sides of industry, the 2009 conference should be decisive in assessing the current situation and forming a common position on possible changes or improvements to be made.

Brussels, 3 December 2008.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Mario SEPI

The Secretary-General of the European Economic and Social Committee