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We cannot afford to let down Europe’s next generation of researchers

30 October 2020

Ludovic Thilly, Chair of the Executive Board of the Coimbra Group

Twenty years after its inception, the European Commission adopted last month a Communication on a new European Research Area (ERA). The Coimbra Group welcomes the timely publication of this roadmap, which outlines the European Commission’s vision for the future of the European Research Area and sets out ambitious targets for Europe’s research and innovation landscape.

We are particularly pleased to see the strengthening of researchers’ mobility, the support for researchers’ careers and the improvement of career development opportunities among the priority strategic objectives of the new ERA. The Coimbra Group is a strong advocate for the recognition of career pathways for researchers.

Short-term contract researchers make a significant contribution to the scientific reputation of Europe’s universities. Yet they face significant barriers in terms of job security and career progression. This is also related to the so-called “permadoc” phenomenon, associated to structural and/or national issues, including the decrease of public research positions in many countries, and the common practice of the three- to four- year contracts, regardless of whether research work is self-funded or funded by private or public bodies.

It is against this backdrop that the Coimbra Group strongly supports policies and financial mechanisms that are people-focused. Universities have the opportunity to initiate such virtuous processes, but a stronger European momentum is needed to transform this into a real systemic change. To this end, the Coimbra Group has been calling for a significantly increased investment in human capital to support all researchers, including doctoral candidates and post-doctoral researchers, whose work and career path progression have been heavily affected by the restrictive measures in place during the pandemic.

The pandemic has brought about a whole new set of challenges while exacerbating existing ones. The lockdown and sanitary measures taken across Europe to counter the pandemic, resulted in limited to no access to university facilities such as laboratories and libraries. While this impacted research productivity for all researchers, both experienced ones and those at an early-stage, the latter – women in particular – are further affected by concerns related to their career progression. The crisis has revealed how fragile the status of early-career researchers is.

Faced with the new restrictions impacting university campuses in the context of the ongoing exponential surge in COVID-19 cases across Europe , early-career researchers, and especially women, who are generally those having to juggle with professional and caring responsibilities, will be heavily affected again. The recommendations outlined in Spring this year in our report “Practices at Coimbra Group Universities in response to the COVID-19 – A Collective Reflection on the Present and Future of Higher Education in Europe”, are, sadly, topical again. The Coimbra Group therefore urges national and European bodies to address these issues without delay, and specifically calls for an extension of ongoing project contracts.

The fight against the Covid-19 virus and the ensuing race for a vaccine, has spotlighted not only the role of research, but also the value of the people who dedicate their professional life to it. We cannot afford to let down Europe’s next generation of researchers.