Sustaining research through the economic downturn – in the UK and Europe

On the 6th and 7th of September 2010, the historic Midland hotel in central Manchester, UK was filled with nearly 400 participants attending the Vitae Researcher Development Conference. The discussion of ideas on professional development and support for researchers at this year’s annual gathering is of particular importance, as it comes cheek by jowl with the UK spending review outcomes to be announced this Autumn – and with an expectation of hard times to come. The conference participants were set to discuss the new political context, to gather evidence of the contribution of researchers to the academic base and to economic and cultural prosperity, and to address future skill sets of researchers and the UK’s place in the global research environment.

As an insight into the benefits of sustaining researchers in the current economic and political climate, two publications in Vitae’s What do researchers do? series were launched at the conference. The documents highlighted the benefits of doctoral study to employability and career progression, and the use of knowledge, skills and experience in the workplace and beyond. They also demonstrated well how researchers have used the skills gained during their doctorate to set up their own businesses or enterprises that have contributed to society and the economy.

However, discussions at Vitae 2010 were not confined to the UK national context. A European policy update on the first day facilitated discussion on what progress has been made with the Bologna Process, conceived in 1999 to create a European higher education area based on international co-operation and academic exchange. This update was highly focussed on developments in doctoral policy. Described as a ‘mini-revolution’, this has been one of the most significant features of Europe’s post-graduate education landscape over the last three years. Doctoral schools have now been established more than 70% of the universities of the 47 countries of the Bologna Process, and there has been a massive increase in structured programmes in these schools. This greater structuring could help facilitate increased mobility of researchers throughout Europe, in order to give added value to researchers’ careers and promote development. The aim is to encourage partnerships across the EU, allowing brain circulation rather than unilateral brain-drain. The Bologna Process has now entered its third cycle, a breathing phase where the focus is on implementation. The aim now is to try to make the early goals a reality by 2012, at the next Ministerial meeting where it will be discussed.

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