Informal Meeting of Ministers Responsible for Competitiveness

Radical funding overhaul needed to empower researchers

Bratislava declaration raises many key concerns of young scientists

Effective research funding has to serve many purposes. It should work to support attractive and sustainable research careers, cultivate innovation, creativity and curiosity, and provide value to society. It must fund great research and support the development of early-career researchers.

But satisfying every demand is challenging. The list of hurdles arising when pursuing a research career has not changed much in the past decade. That is not to say that no progress has been made. Many good initiatives for researchers do exist and much great research still gets done. However, there are still challenges and ways to improve the research environment so that it empowers researchers.

The Bratislava Declaration

Empowering researchers is at the heart of the Bratislava Declaration of Young Researchers, presented at a press conference in Slovakia on 19 July 2016. It followed an informal meeting of the EU Competitiveness Council of research and innovation ministers.

Written by ten researchers from across Europe, the declaration attempts to summarise the aspirations of early career researchers, identify the problems they face, and point to some solutions. Specifically, it criticises the “economically oriented, impact-focused, bureaucratic system” that is “not compatible with fresh ideas and fresh thinking that young people have”.

To solve some of these issues, the declaration calls for a radical restructuring of research funding to better meet the needs of early career researchers. Among other things, it suggests the creation of dedicated funding streams for early career researchers. These would make it possible for young researchers–including doctoral candidates and undergraduate students–to pursue novel and innovative ideas.

Ultimately, the authors of the declaration hope to create a research environment that empowers young researchers. That way, they can fully contribute to the scientific community.

Career stability

The declaration further calls for measures to create more stable research careers, with explicit criteria for career progression. It mentions the need to recruit more permanent staff researchers and mechanisms to improve mobility between public and private sectors.

The need to make the research environment more accommodating for people with families is also an area of concern. The declaration’s authors not only suggest “better childcare provisions, parental care, flexible working practices and dual-career opportunities” be provided, they even call on governments to enforce these measures through legislation where necessary.

Lack of diversity is another troubling issue, with many barriers making research careers unattractive or unattainable to some. The declaration proposes a European charter on equality and suggests that access to European research funding should be dependent on adoption of this charter. The UK’s Athena Swan project is held up as a good example.

So what’s new?

Few scientists will be surprised by what is written in the declaration, and few will question the aspirations it describes. But the fact that such statements continue to be made is telling. These sorts of initiatives serve as a reminder that more can be done to make Europe a better place for research and researchers.

This appears to have been acknowledged by the EC’s research and innovation commissioner, Carlos Moedas, who welcomed the declaration. He agreed on the need to do more to support research. Whether or not the declaration helps inspire any positive changes in European research policy remains to be seen.

It is clear that many researchers are not satisfied, and many good researchers–and many good ideas–are being frustrated by the system. By not engaging with researchers, the problems in pursuing a research career and the solutions to those problems cannot be fully identified.

The frustration that many feel with the research environment demonstrates the need for policy makers to actively engage with researchers to find definite, concrete solutions. And to implement them. For now, the Declaration will be annexed to the Council conclusions for adoption at the Competitiveness Council on 29 November 2016 in Brussels.

You can read and endorse the declaration via its website.

John Peacock

John is a researcher at the Institute of Engineering and Computational Mechanics of the University of Stuttgart, Germany.

Featured image credit: EU SK

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One thought on “Radical funding overhaul needed to empower researchers”

  1. EuroScientist supports the declaration of Bratislava and strongly recommand to EStist readers to endorse it. Scientists needs a new social contract!