10 Years ‘European Charter for Researchers’ (Part 3/3 - The Charter's Achievements)

(May 29th, 2015) In 2005, the European Commission published the ‘European Charter for Researchers’. One of its main aims was to define scientific research as a recognised profession with a clear professional career structure. In March it celebrated its 10th anniversary, but has it achieved its aims?



So what happened?

On the 3rd of March 2015, university heads from around Europe gathered in Brussels to celebrate the 10th birthday of the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers. However, asks Fiona Dunlevy in the Euroscientist – “Does the European Researchers Charter deserve its birthday cake?

The big problem with the Charter and Code has been its implementation. Adhesion is voluntary and there is no legally-binding requirement. Ironically, Europe’s ambitious research plan suffered a similar fate. By its 10th anniversary (in 2010), it was recognised that the Lisbon Strategy was a failure largely as a result of its non-binding character – European countries had signed-up but were not obliged to act (it remains to be seen if the current ‘Europe 2020’ plan will suffer a similar fate.

Unfortunately, this also seems to have happened with the Research Charter and Code. “The idea was to create a code of good practice that institutions could voluntarily adhere to,” explained Jean Patrick Connerade, emeritus professor of physics at Imperial College London, who was the coordinator of the Charter’s foundation, and former president of EuroScience (2000-2006). Ten years on, Connerade said he was disappointed with the Charter’s progress - “The problem was that a lot of people signed up for it and didn’t implement it. There has been a tendency of universities and employers in Europe to pay lip service and just carry on as before.” Another major problem was that implementation was never monitored by the European Commission, partly for budgetary reasons, and partly “because they knew that national governments were not going to back them up.”

Endorsement

The EC announced that in its first 10 years the Charter had been endorsed by more than 1500 research institutions and funders from 40 countries in Europe (the list is here). Unfortunately, a signature of support does not necessarily translate into action.

Therefore, in an attempt to get these institutions to go further and to actually show they are trying to respect the principles of the Charter, the EC has introduced a special “badge” demonstrating “Human Resources Excellence in Research". This is meant to encourage research institutions and funding organisations in the implementation of the Charter & Code in their policies and practices.

A shiny new badge – “HRS4R”

In order to win this badge, institutions have to develop a “Human Resources Strategy for Researchers (‘HRS4R’).”  This involves a 5-step process, starting with an internal analysis by the institution and the publication of its own ‘HR-strategy’ containing an ‘action plan’. If the EC approves, it awards the “Human Resources Excellence in Research" logo. But after two years, the EC expects the institutions to carry out a ‘self-assessment’ of their progress towards implementing their strategy and action plan. Subsequently, “every four years”, there is to be an external evaluation of each institution’s right to keep its shiny badge.

At the Charter’s 10th anniversary ceremony, 206 university heads received their  badges (listed here). The EC claims that the ‘Human Resources Excellence in Research’ badge will render research institutions “more attractive to researchers looking for a new employer or for a host for their research project.” UK universities accounted for half of this list since they were signed up together as part of “ongoing national evaluation and benchmarking.”

Nevertheless, it should be noted that irrespective of the EC’s shiny badge, there are increasing signs that academic researchers in the UK are not happy with the Human Resources strategies of their universities. For example, biologists and medical staff at Queen Mary University London lost their jobs when their research metrics no longer matched the ‘aspirations’ of university management and the tragic suicide of Professor Stefan Grimm at Imperial College London revealed a dark side to its HR practices, while there have been discussions of widespread ‘bullying’ and abuse of researchers at UK universities.

The future of the Charter

For trade unions, the European Charter includes a roadmap of good employment practice for employers and funders. Andreas Keller, vice president of the German Trade Union for Education and Research (GEW) told Euroscientist that institutions should endorse the charter “without any reservations” but he has observed that some institutions are hesitating to “implement recommendations concerning stability and permanence of employment.”

Connerade still believes that the Charter and Code have had some positive impact in this area. “Employers realise that they’re in a defensive position. They can’t impose things as blatantly as they did before.”
 
However, there is also the wider issue of researcher mobility. Originally, Connerade had wanted to facilitate mobility by creating portable pensions and a status of ‘researcher in Europe’, but says this was blocked at a higher level. There are still hopes that the European Research Area (ERA) will help, but researchers who want to move within Europe continue to face significant barriers regarding social security, administration and pensions.

The employment status of PhD candidates is another unresolved problem. The European Charter clearly states that all researchers, including postgraduate students and doctoral candidates should be recognised and treated as ‘professionals’ but this is far from being the case.

It has been argued that the European Commission is still not taking the Charter seriously enough. Perhaps implementation of the Charter and Code might be more successful if it was regarded as a prerequisite for funding by the EU?

The 10th anniversary of the Charter suggests that further progress is going to be slow and uneven unless the EC accepts that researchers are professionals who, like other professions (for example, engineers, architects, accountants, lawyers, etc.) need fair and stable employment conditions upon which to build a lifelong and productive career.

Jeremy Garwood

Photo: Fotolia/Trueffelpix




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