Internships, short-term contracts, job hunting, race to publish, growing importance of network relationships. In recent years, the working condition of researchers has been completely transformed. They are no longer protected by the academic status and the long-term stability of their research institutions. Like most workers, engineers, technicians, managers and employees, researchers are now confronted to the end of wage labour.
Its symptoms: the increasing flexibility of the labour market, the rise in precarious employment and massive unemployment. All of these factors have worsened since the financial crisis of 2008. They reflect a historical shift. The economic and social organisation inherited from the industrial society has now given way to an open world. It is characterised by access to knowledge by hundreds of millions of people. And the proliferation and widespread diffusion of technologies.
Increased competition and network-based collaboration
In this open world context, the demand for individual autonomy fuels the competition between job candidates. A mix of economic constraints, development of knowledge, social openness and individual aspirations has perturbed the old hierarchical social relations and the vertical, top-down structures inherited from the industrial society. Thus, large research institutions previously defined by their speciality focus, make room for contract research organisations, and multi-disciplinary team-building around specific research projects with a limited life span.
In parallel, innovation stems from collaborative practices and horizontal exchanges. Previously, research organisations and universities—be it public or private—were essential in linking knowledge required to produce innovation. But in the new knowledge societies, this transactional role is increasingly played by formal and informal scientists’ networks.
As a result, research work and careers are no longer fostered in a sustainable environment. Instead, skills and human resources are mobilised in one-off teams of experts gathered for clearly defined projects of limited duration. The intellectual professions like research, which value individual talents, are at the forefront of this evolution.
Social desirability versus social utility
The trouble is that the post- wage-labour society has a dual face at the interface between collaboration and competition.
In traditional hierarchical organisations, promotion was based on seniority and qualifications; these were objective criteria applicable to all. Now, we are engaged in a war for talent. Skills, which are an individualised concept, now prevail with the risk of people being chosen for a job, on the basis of their ‘social desirability’ and not their ‘social utility’.
The nuance between the two is quite significant. Recruiters increasingly make wide use of networking sites to evaluate job applicants. As a result, personality traits —including social skills, extroversion, emotional stability, openness, etc.—play a growing role in making candidates eligible for positions. But it remains to be seen how these socially desirable qualities would ultimately equate with scientific competence, which is socially useful.
In addition, research now meets utilitarian grounds. It depends on the willingness of States to make their territory attractive and create jobs for the future—and is no longer driven by science for the sake of exploring new knowledge. Research is also now used to meets the need of companies to offer innovative products. Besides, there is also a requirement for transparency, as the public wants to assess the value of research programs conducted.
Lack of career structure as labour becomes a commodity
All of these factors create a vast movement of commodification of labour. Thus, this evolution leaves the problem of a researcher’s career unresolved. This is especially problematic at a time of financial constraints on public budgets. Meanwhile, what makes it worse is the fact that large companies outsource more and more their research efforts.
A practical solution, which would partially allay concerns of lack of structure in researchers’ careers, could lie in the harmonisation and transparency of recruitment methods, at least in Europe. This greater openness would, however, means more fierce competition for research jobs, now open to a truly global market.
In a nutshell, we went from an internalised labour market, regulated inside large research and industrial institutions, with clear rules, to a widespread competition. There, researchers, like other workers, have to learn to sell themselves, and put forward, beyond their scientific skills, their adaptability and their team-working capability.
Above all, what matters today, is also their ability to enhance their network because in this new world, what you know is who you know.
Jean-Pierre Gaudard, editor, and author of a book in French called ‘La fin du salariat’ (The end of the wage labour).
Featured image credit: J.P. Gaudard
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