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Conference on Science and Technology in Europe


European Forum of Young Scientists
Gdansk 7-9 October 2000

Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Committee
on Science and Technology

Report

 

 

Executive Summary

The Forum of 54 young scientists from 22 countries held lively discussions about the problems and opportunities facing science, and young scientists in particular, in Europe. Several key themes were identified. These included: the need to make European research careers more attractive; the importance of more flexible research, funding and career structures, in particular greater autonomy for scientists earlier in their careers; the need to recognise and address the particular problems of Eastern European research mobility and funding; and the requirement for greater public involvement in, and appropriation of, science.

Six policy proposals were developed, of which the two main priorities are:

Develop more flexible research structures and funding schemes : A European postdoctoral status, and accompanying incentives for institutions to participate, funded at European level.

Address the particular problems of Eastern European research mobility : Shorter PhD degrees and mutual recognition of degrees, with transitional concessions for Eastern European scientists, and assistance with setting up new infrastructure.

European Forum of Young Scientists, Gdansk 7-9 October 2000

The European Forum of Young Scientists met for two days prior to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Committee on Science and Technology Conference on Science and Technology in Europe : Prospects for the 21st Century. The Forum was organised by UNESCO and the Marie Curie Fellowship Association, in association with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Technical University of Gdansk, and AIESEC Poland.

The Forum involved 54 participants from 22 countries. Interesting presentations from invited speakers were followed by lively debate among the young scientists present. Several key themes were recurrent through the sessions. This brief report summarises these themes and the policy implications, and concludes with a short list of policy priorities.

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Summary of Key Themes

Poor attractiveness of research careers and insufficient opportunities offered by Europe to its young scientists represent a potential risk for the future of research and development in Europe. Independently of the financial effort need to overcome the increasing gap in European research budgets with respect to the US a few practical measures could improve the integration of young scientists and make them more adapted to the changing science and technology labour market.

Science careers in Europe need to be made more attractive. This is partly a question of funding and salaries, but also connected to the level of autonomy experienced by young researchers. Researchers need to become independent at an earlier stage in their careers in order to take advantage of their creativity and productivity.

There are great differences among areas, in terms of training and in terms of opportunities for individuals and requirements of industry: there is significant unemployment in some areas and major skill shortages in others. Mobility is still limited in Europe today: it is encouraged by EU programmes, but is driven primarily by job seekers rather than by industry, except for a select few. More information about jobs and opportunities and about the range of individual skills and qualifications available within Europe could help to reduce rigidities in the system on both sides.

Although greater mobility is clearly potentially beneficial for individual researchers, for home institutions and states mobility can mean a brain drain if scientists do not return home – this is particularly acute in Eastern Europe. To combat brain drain, incentives are needed to encourage mobile researchers to return to their home countries. Greater assistance for individual researchers to cover the transitional costs of returning should be considered, and incentives are vital to encourage home countries and institutions to welcome returning scholars and ease the transition between different research cultures and systems. Linking fellowships to assistance with establishing research facilities on return, particularly to countries with less developed research infrastructure, should form a key part of this policy.

Greater knowledge exchange is required between academia and industry, at all levels. Academia should be producing graduates and postgraduates with the skills required for industry and research, but for this to happen it is vital that industry be engaged in informing academia of its rapidly evolving needs. Creating national and European industry advisory boards for universities should be considered; and greater involvement of industrial representatives at the individual university level should be encouraged, especially with respect to curriculum development and audit. Greater flexibility in academic career structures and evaluation should be introduced in order to allow academics to collaborate with industry and government, to mutual benefit, without jeopardising their positions.

There is also need for greater individual awareness of the requirement for wider skills and lifelong learning, as well as a greater willingness on the part of universities to train undergraduate and doctoral students in these skills, such as teamwork, leadership, and project management. Knowledge may be key, but personal and business skills are also essential. The ability to adopt a mutidisciplinary approach will become increasingly valuable and the training offered by universities should enable this.

There is an increasing tendency towards public mistrust of science and of political decision making related to science and technology development. This must be addressed through greater appropriation of science by the public, and through scientists becoming more accountable to society. Developments in biotechnology give a clear example both of the need for greater public integration into scientific decision making and of the need for education about risks and tradeoffs. It also illustrates the misuse of information technology for propaganda on both sides of a debate and the influence of economic power in shaping the research agenda. Scientists must no longer allow themselves, or be allowed, to be used in the service of economic or military power independent of ethical and environmental considerations, but must rather serve the society. For this to occur, society must be empowered to cope with high volumes of often conflicting information and must be given fora to make public views heard. This can be achieved through increased emphasis on basic science education to enhance public understanding of science, and through establishing structures for informed public participation in scientific agenda setting and decision making. Scientists must form better public communication structures to disseminate information about cutting-edge research and its implications.

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Proposed Action Points 

There was a general view that policy needs to be more focussed on particular problems such as those identified above. The following concrete proposals arose from the Forum discussions.

  • Develop more flexible research structures and funding schemes. Scientists should have more control over the financial planning of their projects. A postdoctoral status defined at a European level, superceding national structures, would allow employment of mobile postdocs in countries where the currently rigid national system prevents this. Incentives for institutions to participate will be required and enable access to certain networks or funding opportunities. These advantages should be funded at European level.
  • Address the particular problems of Eastern European research mobility. Better harmonization, and in particular shorter PhD degrees and mutual recognition of degrees, is a priority. A European database of science and technology opportunities for young scientists, including fellowships and academic and industrial positions, should be established. Obstacles to mobility should be removed, such as delays in providing visas. There should be short-term transitional concessions for Eastern European scientists, for example where average age of graduation is higher, or infrastructure weaker, than in the West. These inequalities should be taken into consideration in awarding grants and some should be earmarked for Eastern European scientists. It is also important to encourage Western European countries to participate fully in existing schemes (such as INTAS) with Eastern European countries.
  • Give scientists more independence earlier in their careers through funding targetted to excellent young scientists, awarded on merit, to create research leaders. This requires funding for networking and training and further support to set up labs, in particular in Eastern Europe.
  • Return grants should be introduced, paid partly to the institution and partly to individuals, to provide additional incentives for mobility, help avoid "brain drain", and fund new research facilties.
  • Encourage effective promotion of a European research area open to scientists of all origins, by removing the administrative and statutory barriers that make transnational careers very difficult (for instance, in terms of insurance or pension schemes, or of equivalence of diplomas for certain countries) . An overall increase in the percentage of GDP invested in research is also required, part of which should be devoted to improve salaries to be competitive with industry and scientific salaries in other nations, so as to attract the best scientists to research careers.
  • Support wider skills training in postgraduate degrees to ensure that doctoral candidates are fully equipped to meet the needs of career building for consulting and industry. Additional funding will be crucial, but minimum requirements for training provided by host institutions for accessing existing mobility grants should also be considered.

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Main Priorities

The Forum is aware of the need to prioritise objectives for political purposes. The general consensus is that the most urgent changes are:

  1. Developing more flexible research structures and funding schemes : A European postdoctoral status, and accompanying incentives for institutions to participate funded at European level.
  2. Addressing the particular problems of Eastern European research mobility : Shorter PhD degrees and mutual recognition of degrees, with transitional concessions in funding criteria for Eastern European scientists, and assistance with setting up new infrastructure.

In conclusion, the participants in the Forum valued greatly the opportunity to meet to discuss these important issues and to present this document to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Committee on Science and Technology. The Forum feels that mechanisms for input by young scientists into policy nationally, and at European level, should be reinforced and their development supported. The European Forum of Yong Scientsts should be established as a permanent platform, for which financial and structural facilities will have to be developed, to facilitate dialogue amongst young scientists and with the wider scientific and policy making communities.

Gdansk, 9 October, 2000

 

 

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