Wooden statues in the middle of nature to illustration the Lost Generation

The “Lost Generation” of European Scientists: How can we make the system more sustainable?

This article is part of a Special Issue highlighting sessions held at ESOF 2018 Toulouse (9-14 July 2018) and proposed by the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA) members.

Attend this session on 11th July at 17:00.


Within the academic system, the “Lost Generation” refers to the growing cohort of senior post-docs and other scientists who, after accumulating short-term contracts and temporary positions, find themselves excluded from the research system due to the lack of opportunities for permanent positions.

In a new, overcrowded and over-competitive system, this cohort is expected to abide by the old rules. Often, they face a vacuum exacerbated by geographical, social and familial constraints, a lack of skills necessary for a career switch, and the absence of real opportunities related to their age, as well as the fact that long stretches spent in the academic system are often disregarded by many employers. Their career instability, as well as the loss of such highly trained individuals, create instability in the academic system itself, leading to loss of vertical knowledge exchange and an inefficient use of human and financial resources.

These scientists are part of a widespread, rarely addressed problem in academia. Although there are differences across European Countries, there is a general trend that is not country or region specific. We believe it is more fruitful to focus on a broader perspective of the actors that contribute to this trend, and potential solutions for this cohort.

The problems facing the ‘Lost Generation’ are not new, and have been debated for many years now. Some clear recommendations have been proposed. but little has been done to address their needs in Europe and internationally. The problem is also become more urgent over time, as competition increases, and the concept of the ‘disposable scientist’ becomes the norm. The current academic system is creating, in many instances, what resembles a programmed obsolescence of an academic ‘Precariat’.

There is also something that we do not always acknowledge, which is that we all have some responsibility in this. Small changes in the system, for the better, are possible but it is naïve to imagine that it will be possible to return to an age of widespread permanent employment within research organisations. We should all take responsibility to help make this crowded and highly competitive academic system fairer, more transparent and to increase awareness of the challenges facing researchers.

We are especially interested in opening a discussion on the following issues that involve all relevant stakeholders – from the researchers to the principal investigators, research institutions, National Funding Agencies and the European Commission.

1) How can the system evolve to increase awareness regarding long-term academic opportunities (or the lack thereof) in order to make young scientists more responsible for their own fate (an important element here being that shifts are more difficult at a later stage)?

2) How can young scientists be better trained and prepared for career shifts? What would be the implications of the “training” activities on the system as a whole (from scientific output to evaluations)? What are the costs and organisational implications?

3) Should the system be made more responsible, e.g. by reducing opportunities of short-term employments (including post-docs and other, more senior forms of temporary contracts) eventually leading to a dead-end? What are the respective responsibilities of the various stakeholders, from policy makers to funding bodies and host institutions?

4) Should the structure be reshaped to distinguish between permanent senior scientist positions and from PIs or professorships that are are offered in institutions? 

5) If Research & Innovation – and therefore the scientists – are so important for the future of Europe, why is the system so demanding and, at times, unfair (salaries, mobility requirement with consequences on pension and social benefits, family life and perspectives, etc.)?

This ESOF session is organised by Sara Ricardo, a Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA) Board Member and a career-track fellow at Instituto de Biologia Molecular de Barcelona (IBMB), in partnership with Gilles Mirambeau, co-founder of the Spanish AEACEuroScience member and molecular biologist at Sorbonne Université and Luc van Dyck, consultant on European affairs.

In this session we will have the opportunity to directly discuss these points with an expert panel of relevant stakeholders: Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of the European Research Council (ERC), Rolf Tarrach, president of the European Universities Association (EUA), Renée Schroeder, professor at University of Vienna and Varvara Trachana, professor at University of Thessaly.

With this workshop we aim to bring clear actionable ideas to the table that can be implemented.

Sara Ricardo, Gilles Mirambeau and Luc Van Dyck

Featured image credit: ©️ Laurent Condominas

Go back to the Special Issue: ESOF 2018

Sara Ricardo

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7 thoughts on “The “Lost Generation” of European Scientists: How can we make the system more sustainable?”

  1. Maybe those are only impressions of an outlier senior, but here they are…. Sustainability in academy needs to improve the balance senior-junior, to promote long-term approaches, cooperative dynamics, blue-sky research, to reduce the negative impact of bureaucracy and a better consideration about scientists and their life quality within and outside the academy. Many great students, young and not so young scientists are leaving science driven by a negative choice. And many others that are still in are suffering a lot due to a lack of attracting perspectives combined with a strong pressure for peanuts. There is a critical needs for active seniors in research to drive, to advise and to debate (in one verb: to share) with young scientists helping them to get an open and complete scientific culture. Without active memories based on long term acquisition of knowledge and intergenerational transmission, it is much more difficult to maintain highly educated, cooperative and open minds. Moreover, it is then easier to get a dominating elit imposing a frustrating model for a large majority of scientists that get lost in translation. More scientists need to be successful within and outside the academy for and with the society. Cooperation, not competition!

    1. Dear Gilles,

      I completely agree with you. My experience is that many senior scientists prefer to avoid to even talk about these very important issues. Three of our best phd students this year are leaving academia. They don’t even want to consider post-doctoral positions. The competition for huge grants in academia has shown its limits. An equal opportunity redistribution of the financial ressources would improve the system, but that seems unlikely.


    2. “There is a critical needs for active seniors in research to drive, to advise and to debate (in one verb: to share) with young scientists helping them to get an open and complete scientific culture. ”

      The people in power will think of their own interests first. It is a struggle between science and managerialism (i.e. the people who were the bullies in the school playground).

      Do audits of your own field and call out any problematic data. Everybody could do their bit.

  2. As a former president of the school of mathematics @uclouvain, I will only comment about mathematics. There are indeed small changes in the system that can be done. Last year we changed our bac program in mathematics, to give access to the master in data sicence – option statistics. Before 20th century, mathematics was driven mainly by problems posed by physics and society. Pure mathematics is a 20th century invention, mostly in the second part of the 20th century. Great problems however have been solved in the second half of 20th century: the classification of finite simple groups, Fermat’s last theorem, Poincaré conjecture, Weil’s conjectures to name a few. Though these are very important problems, the statement of which can be understood by most mathematicians, almost no mathematician understands the proofs of these results. This is unprecedented in the history of mathematics. There is a need to go back to problems which are posed by “the real world” and our society. The challenges posed by Big Data is one example, with its good and bad sides, like it was for nuclear energy. The academic system should be more sensitive to these issues, by allowing young scientists to move in more promising directions of research, which needs time. The actual system pushes young people to hyper-specialisation, to publish more and more articles, with more and more pages, that almost nobody reads, except for a few experts in their own field.

  3. I disagree that scientists’ fate is obsolescence if academia can no longer offer a research position. I daily deal with scientists with career development dilemmas and indeed recognize the reasoning in this post. Changing the research system is maybe one option, but I believe 1) and 2) are more relevant, viable strategies to improve the career outlook of researchers. I address both issues in my work (one of the initiatives mentioned in the recently published LERU position paper: https://www.leru.org/publications/delivering-talent-careers-of-researchers-inside-and-outside-academia). My experience is that, with the right approach and strategy, researchers can be trained in identifying of and landing professional challenges outside academic research. Positions that matches their interests, work values (intellectual challenge!) and level. Society needs professionals equipped with skills that researchers can offer!

    1. I agree with you. The obsolescence that we refer to is within academia. I believe all fronts should be tackled, both 3)-5) and 1)-2). I am in totally agreement with you that researchers can be trained for professional success outside of academia and that society needs professionals equipped with the researchers’ skills.