Members of the Karolinska Institute’s Postdoc Association fear an amendment to Sweden’s Research Bill could create career instability.
In November 2016 the Swedish government announced plans to introduce a tenure track system to make academic careers more secure, to improve mobility and to make research more competitive.
But in July last year an amendment to the Research Bill stipulated that PhD graduates had a maximum of five years (two years less than now) to get an Assistant Professorship (Biträdande Lektor in Swedish). Universities must comply by 1 April 2018.
The amendment was meant to help academic scientists reach job stability earlier in their careers, but European Commission figures show that between 2000 and 2013, 36.8% of PhD graduates across research fields were 30-34 years old.
Not only does this new eligibility criterion not reflect the reality of a career in the life sciences, there are also no proposals to increase funding for staff scientists to prevent the loss of talent, knowledge and know-how in academia.
The Karolinska Institutet Postdoc Association (KIPA) regularly runs surveys to assess postdoc life, and in a joint initiative with the junior faculty at KI, we asked 574 early-career scientists about the new Research Bill, with 81.8% being in favour of a tenure-track system. KI Postdoc Association is an organization representing KI postdocs, independent of the university.
But 42.1% said eligibility for an assistant professorship should remain seven years. And more than one in three (36.6%) believe there should be no time limit at all after PhD graduation (Figure 1). Overall 78.7% of postdocs and young faculty members do not agree with the proposed changes.
In Sweden, reforms go through a period of public consultation before becoming law and KIPA shared the survey data with Sweden’s Ministry of Higher Education and Research. KIPA’s view on the undesirable impact of the new time limit on research quality and researchers’ careers is shared by KI, Junior Faculty at KI (JF-KI), Uppsala University Postdoc Association (UUPA), the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers (Eurodoc) and the International Consortium of Research Staff Associations (ICoRSA), among others. But despite our concerns, the amendment has been implemented.
Reaching a high level of competitiveness and independence in research depends on many factors, such as availability of resources, research area, research project, training and support; not to mention the time required to publish scientific work, which can span years in areas such as biology or medical research, but is a necessary pre-requisite to apply for faculty positions.
High quality and impactful science takes time. The UK’s Medical Research Council (MRC) recently removed the time-after-graduation criterion for independent positions, reasoning that science does not only need sprinters.
In the US, the National Institute of Health (NIH) does not set time limits to apply for a Research Project Grant (R01).
And the European Research Council (ERC) offers start-up and consolidator grants with eligibility criteria of up to seven and between seven and twelve years after PhD graduation, respectively.
In the short term, the changes will lead to a paradoxical increase in the job instability of postdocs in Sweden.
Postdocs who received their PhD degrees (or equivalent) between 2011 and 2013 will be pushed out of academia, because they are suddenly beyond the limit, similarly to what happened in France after the introduction of the “Loi Sauvadet” in March 2012 (the measure aimed to limit short-term contracts by moving postholders to more stable contracts after six months, but the way it was applied caused problems. See Pain, E. A time limit on postdoctoral contracts: The French experience. Science, (2015)).
In the long-term, Sweden will jeopardize its international competitiveness and attractiveness in biomedical research. Postdocs in Sweden will prefer incremental rather than innovative, risky research projects to avoid delays in producing results.
They will also stay away from multidisciplinary projects, involving different labs and countries, and international mobility, as this requires time and effort.
This will negatively impact their ability to build a competitive and dynamic scientific portfolio. Five years is a short time to reach the assistant professorship milestone of the academic hurdle race.
Sweden has three out of thirteen universities in the top one hundred Ranking of World Universities, is home to the Nobel prizes in scientific disciplines, offers a strong and advanced social welfare system and science in Sweden is well regarded and supported. According to a survey conducted at the Karolinska Institutet (KI), 61.9% of postdocs are satisfied with their scientific research activities. But winter is coming in the North.
Early-career scientists’ opinion on the time limit to be eligible for an assistant professorship in Sweden
The surveyed scientists perform research at the Karolinska Institutet. 18.9% (106/574) and 42.1% (236/574) of respondents think the limit should be set to five or seven years after PhD graduation, respectively. 36.6% (205/574) of respondents thinks no limits should be set. 4.8% (27/574) of respondents has no strong opinion on the matter.
This post was jointly authored by the following postdocs: