The career system and the ability to recruit the best talents play a crucial role for the quality of Swedish research, says Swedish Research Council Director General Sven Stafström.

Now we must make better career paths

Svenska 2015-09-15

An absolute majority of younger researchers employed at Swedish higher education institutions are to have career development positions and this should occur within five years of their doctoral degrees. Many of the recommendations the Swedish Research Council is providing the Government prior to its work on the research bill concerns career paths. Improving them is one of the most important issues for Swedish research, Director General Sven Stafström thinks.

The opportunities for young researchers to develop themselves are tightly woven together with equality of opportunity, international and national mobility, and scientific quality. For many of today’s younger researchers, insecurity and temporary employment has become a part of everyday life. Swedish Research Council Director General Sven Stafström describes the situation as untenable.

“If research careers are not perceived as attractive, more and more talented people will drop out. Swedish research will then lose its ability to compete internationally. It is especially important that young, promising researchers are given the opportunity to establish themselves and develop independent research. They are, after all, the future of research.”

“The future of research” is also an umbrella term for a number of studies the Council has conducted that form the basis for the recommendations they are now giving the Government in their report, Vägval för framtidens forskningssystem (Choice of path for the research system of the future).

Career development positions should replace temporary employment

One of the studies deals with career paths. This shows, as Curie wrote about earlier, that the proportion of young researchers who have career-development positions as research assistants or assistant lecturers has decreased dramatically over the past few years, and that those who nevertheless succeed in getting career-development positions are getting them later and later. The path there often goes through a number of brief, limited-time positions; when these jobs are filled, a formalized review of qualifications rarely takes place.

“This means that a researcher may find themselves in the research system through brief, temporary project positions over several years without a review that determines whether they have the basis for pursuing a career in academia,” Sven Stafström says.

In Vägval för framtidens forskningssystem, the Swedish Research Council argues that the career development position introduced in the 2012 Higher Education Ordinance should be used to a significantly greater extent than it is today. Only those who defended their theses five years ago at most should be considered for this. It should also be investigated whether the employment period can be extended so that the question of whether the employee meets the requirements for being permanently employed can be reviewed well in advance of the end of the position.

Career paths influence quality

The career system and the ability to recruit the best talents play a crucial role for the quality of Swedish research, Sven Stafström states.

Through making use of clear, transparent processes for recruitment and promotions, with open announcements and formalized routines, higher education institutions can promote quality and flexibility, he emphasizes.

“In a career system that functions properly, recruitment is not just an issue for individual research groups but a strategic question handled at the departmental level. In this way, a higher education institution can actively search for specific competencies in order to supplement and develop its educational and research profiles.”

The chances of employing researchers from other higher education institutions thereby increases. Recruitment should also concretely contribute to the equality of opportunity at the higher education institution. Formalized routines play an important role here, he stresses.

“They make it easier to focus on the quality aspects we need to get at. The observations we made in connection with the allocation of research support at the Council shows that equality of opportunity increases as the assessment process is formalized, whereas informal structures or unspoken assessment criteria have the opposite effect.”

Strengthen the opportunity for skilled researchers to conduct research

Mr Stafström thinks it is unfortunate that the major increases in the grants that the higher education institutions have received in recent years have been used to hire new researchers to such a great extent. This has meant decreased resources per researcher/teacher, counted in fixed monetary value. This is something that affects the quality of research and makes it less innovative.

“More resources should instead be applied to the researchers and teachers already in the system. This will likely lead to the number of researchers and teachers conducting research decreasing.”

Suitable forms of recruitment and employment, sufficient research time, support resources and infrastructure create an attractive environment and promote originality, risk-taking and sustainability. In this way, higher education institutions can strengthen the opportunity for skilled researchers and teachers to conduct research, Sven Stafström says.

More postdocs needed

In their recommendations to the Government, the Swedish Research Council highlights the importance of international postdocs. More newly-minted doctors should be given the opportunity to broaden their research specialisations in a new environment in another country – to create an international network and to become more independent. The international sojourn is valuable even for those who don’t continue in academia. This is why the number of grants to international postdocs should be higher than the number of grants awarded later in a career.

In addition, the Council recommends more resources to outstanding younger researchers after the postdoc period – they mention an establishment phase and a consolidation phase of 2 to 7 and 8 to 12 years respectively after a doctorate.

“These funds should be allocated in a national competition, which could conflict with higher education institutions’ own strategic recruitment of young researchers. This is why a dialogue is needed between the Council and the higher education institutions about who is to seek out the new career support. Perhaps there should be a requirement that those who seek funds should be employed at a Swedish higher education institution?”

Text: Ragnhild Romanus
Photo: Anders Norderman

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