Research community will hardly benefit from new employment rules, union warns

A new Portuguese law aims to bring more career security to post-doctoral researchers by replacing the current system of scholarships with professional employment contracts. But a reduced number of new hires and the capacity of the institutions to terminate the new contracts unilaterally have turned expectation into disappointment among the country’s scientists.

Post-docs in Portugal are currently hired via scholarships, which strip them of working rights such as maternity leave and unemployment subsidies. The new regulation, which is one of the first major changes to the science system in Portugal since the new left wing government took office in November 2015, aims to turn 3,000 existing scholarships into professional contracts by 2020. Socialist Party science minister Manuel Heitor has said the new system will replace scholarships with ‘respectable contracts, with social security, unemployment subsidies and all the legal guarantees’.

But according to the country’s Network of Scientists against Precarity, the government has only guaranteed the new contracts to post-doctoral scholars currently funded by the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT), and hasn’t been clear about researchers who get their funding from elsewhere. Gonçalo Leite Velho, president of Snesup, Portugal’s largest higher education labour, says this means the guaranteed contracts will only cover 14% of existing scholarships: ‘It’s very little, and it goes along the lines of previous programmes that didn’t solve the precarious situation of Portuguese post-docs. This kind of law is disappointing coming from a left-wing government,’ he says. He also points out that researchers hired through the new system can be fired at any moment, adding to their uncertainty and instability.

The law has been criticised by Bloco de Esquerda, The anti-austerity party that supports the socialist government. In a statement, they said that the law doesn’t create stability for the researchers: ‘It proposes to change the precarity of the scholarships for more precarity […] constituting an open door to even easier terminations’. The party asked the minister if the wider issue of work stability among researchers could really be solved ‘with fixed-term contracts that are three years long’.

As well as only slightly improving the existing employment situation for post-docs, Velho argues that the law could potentially lead to increased abuses of power and cases of ‘academic bullying’, as it will change the way applications for post-doc positions are handled: ‘Instead of a national call for applications, we’re going to have small calls for each institution, so that is going to affect competition and scrutiny.’