European Commission proposal to create single labour market for scientists unlikely to be implemented, say experts

An ambitious European Commission initiative to create a single labour market for scientists that transcends national boundaries has received a lukewarm response, with some observers saying the proposal stands little chance of being implemented.

On 27 May, EU Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik unveiled the ’European Partnership for Researchers’, which includes a recommendation to allow researchers to carry pensions and other social security benefits from country to country. Three days later he presented it at the European Competitiveness Council, which includes science and education ministers from EU member nations.

But a Brussels-based diplomat specialising in science policy who was at the meeting told Chemistry World: ’I think the reaction was pretty lukewarm, to be honest.’

They added that the Commission had not provided any ’concrete evidence’ that lack of researcher mobility within the EU is truly a problem. Without that, the chances of getting member states to agree to mobile pensions for researchers are ’pretty slim’.

Ferdi Sch?th, vice president for chemistry at the German Research Foundation - Germany’s main funding body - agrees with that assessment, saying that pension systems are highly complicated, and unique to each nation. ’I doubt that there would be a separate [European] pension system just for scientists,’ says Sch?th, a co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in M?lheim an der Ruhr. ’If they were able to develop a workable system, why not apply it to the whole [European] population?’

Faint praise 

John.Smith, deputy secretary general of the European University Association (EUA) in Brussels, says that the EUA has not taken an official stand on the new proposal. However, he says that universities are generally supportive of lowering barriers to international recruitment. ’Clearly mobility is a good idea,’ he says. ’We would like to see fewer barriers for researchers.’

Sch?th praised the Commission for striving to improve research conditions, saying: ’Every little bit helps.’ But he is not convinced that increasing researcher mobility within Europe would have a significant impact on research quality. Instead, Sch?th sees the main problem in chemistry being a shortage of researchers. ’We need more people on career paths in science and technology,’ he says.

Sch?th adds that while pensions are an important consideration for older scientists, research quality and scientific freedom are a higher priority for younger scientists. He points out that the UK has a relatively high proportion of foreign scientists, even though ’the UK is not known for having a great pension system’.

In an interview with Chemistry World, Catherine Ray, European Commission spokeswoman for Science and Research, noted that the initiative was simply a proposal to EU member nations states issued in the form of a communiqu?.

’The text is only advice from the Commission to member states,’ she says, adding that EU member states have sovereignty over pensions and most social security and health programs. Referring to the communiqu?, she says: ’From a legal point, there will be no formal EU vote. We hope to accomplish this through participation at the national level, not at the EU level.’

In addition to mobile pensions and social security, the initiative also proposes greater portability of individual grants awarded by national funding agencies and that all publicly-funded researchers’ positions should be openly advertised online.

According to Ray, member nations at the Competitiveness Council meeting agreed to take the proposal back home for further discussion before reporting back at the next council meeting, tentatively planned for September. Science Commissioner Potocnik said at the press conference he would like to see ’measurable progress’ by the end of 2010.

Ned Stafford