Building Research Careers - the Postdoctoral Experience

C.H.I.U has organised the first national conference to explore the role of the postdoctoral researcher, its place in the development of a research career and its recognition both internally in research institutions and externally. The Irish government has set the target of doubling the number of researchers in academia and industry. Creating a system that will attract the necessary number of researchers is absolutely vital.

The purpose of the conference was to identify the current strengths and weaknesses operating at the postdoctoral level, and to proffer examples and opportunities for improvements in the system of program design, working arrangements, researcher mobility etc.

The audience was dominated by postdoctoral researchers and included senior academics, administrators and representatives from Dept of Enterprise, SFI, HRB, IRCHSS and IRCSET. The urgency of the issues under discussion was reflected in the large number of people that had to be turned away.

Prof. Jane Grimson, Vice Provost TCD and Chair IRCSET, opened the conference welcoming the participants and underlining the importance of the issues to be discussed.

The Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Barry McSweeney gave the keynote address emphasizing the need for a vibrant cadre of career researchers to underpin the Knowledge Based Economy. He made it clear that we cannot go forward and increase the numbers of research within the current system.

  • Introduce a seven year funding stream that will give researchers stability with the opportunity to spend time in industry and abroad.
  • Need more funds for universities to achieve this objective

We cannot increase the numbers from our own system alone and even if we did it would lead to a sterile system. We need to attract back Irish researchers abroad and attract researchers from the global community. This will require a more open system with regard to visas for non EU nationals and full implementation of the EU Third Country Directive.

Dr. Boaz Avron, Weizmann Institute, talked about the highly developed schemes to attract researchers to Israel; there is great emphasis on the detail in providing adequate social security cover, health insurance, in particular. This should be a model for Ireland in creating opportunities for researchers coming from abroad.

Dr. Gus McEvoy, EPFL, Lausanne, talked about the life cycle of the postdoc and how it is the personal family decisions that often decides the location where they establish roots.

Dr. Niall Dillon, MRC, pointed out that the implementation of the Fixed Term Workers Directive when applied to researchers is creating a stagnant non competitive system in the UK. In contrast, Germany has applied this Directive in a way that will allow universities to continue the practice of having researchers on short term contracts. Dr. Conor O’Carroll, C.H.I.U, pointed out the universities are actively working with the funding agencies to arrive at a solution that will increase the attractiveness of a career in research by providing proper social benefits for researchers.

Paradoxically the increase in the number of researchers will increase the competition for academic positions. Dr. Willie Donnelly WIT stressed the need to enable our postdocs with skills that will help them get jobs in industry. The postdoc must be treated as an individual and their success not based on the success of the project alone. These enabling skills should be taught at a national level with the involvement of industry.

Dr. Massimo Serpieri, European Commission, talked about the new European Charter for Researchers that will provide a template to reinforce research as a career across Europe. While the US is a federal state researchers move easily across the continent with no difficulty in taking social security benefits with them. In contrast, researchers moving across Europe, cannot easily take their social security benefits over borders. The Commission is working actively to create the environment for a more open system with portable benefits.

In closing the conference, Prof. Ferdinand von Prondzynski stated that the issue of research careers is one which the Universities takes very seriously and C.H.I.U are working closely with funding bodies and Industry in insuring the long term sustainability of research careers in Ireland.