Sara Ricardo, MCAA Board member, led a session at ESOF 2018 dedicated to a phenomenon called “the “lost generation” of academic scientists”. We interviewed her to find out more and to discuss how to improve the future of scientists and researchers.
Sara has been a Career-Track Principal Investigator in Cell and Developmental Biology in Barcelona since 2011. She is also an independent public funding consultant, working with foundations, companies and academic institutions. Experienced in managing teams, projects and budgets and developing partnerships and collaborations with non-governmental organisations and academic institutions. Sara was awarded a PhD by the University College London (UCL), followed by post-doctoral work in the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. Her work has dealt with basic questions of Cell Biology, such as tissue organisation and cell motility, within the 3D complex and dynamic in vivo embryonic system. Within MCAA, apart from currently serving on the Board, Sara has been a co-chair of the Portugal-Spanish chapter and is an active
Policy WG member
What’s the “lost generation” of academic scientists?
The “lost generation” of academic scientists refers to the mid-career scientists and researchers who, after completing many short-term contracts and temporary positions, find themselves largely excluded from research careers due to lack of opportunities for permanent positions.
The term “lost generation” was first coined by Gertrude Stein to identify writers coming of age during World War I to whom pre-war values were no longer valid. We thought that this was a good term to represent the mid-career academics cohort that were caught in the middle, in an age in which the old rules that governed the scientific enterprise, and by extension research careers, no longer applied and have been suffering the consequences of that.
Can you tell us about your session at ESOF?
I think the session went very well, we had good speakers and it got a good attendance in terms of number, variety of people and ages. I especially liked that it was interactive, and people were able to voice their doubts, questions and suggestions. I am also happy with the news coverage that it got, as it allowed the subject to be made aware outside that room at ESOF. Of course, this is just a drop in the ocean and much more should or could be done but I am content with this first step.
Universities and other institutions should track and provide data on how many academic jobs are available at each level. Do you think this is something that all stakeholders would do?
Honestly, although they could, all stakeholders may not be willing to do it. I think some may but some most likely won’t. But it is something that if it is pushed, namely at the level of the university and research institutions associations (e.g. EUA, LERU), it may happen, at least initially in smaller groups. If these small groups are influential then maybe it can grow. But, realistically, moving several stakeholders is not an easy task.
‘The European Commission should study and possibly fund a tenure-track model for Europe and encourage national governments to open up traditional career paths to new possibilities, removing unnecessary legal barriers’
This is a complex answer, but I will try to summarise some of the most important points here. Firstly, one of the main difficulties that Europe faces in terms of researchers’ careers policies is that it consists of a very diverse group of countries, in which several academic models exist. That may be one of the reasons why in the US it is simpler to advance with specific recommendations (although not necessarily putting them into practice).
In the US, there have been proposals at the different career steps: 1) Better postdoctoral skill training and mentorship 2) Transition independent grant schemes to aid scientific independence of postdocs 3) Funding (e.g. R01 grant) for all new investigators, grant support for investigators in non-tenure track positions and job security measures for the stabilization of junior research leaders (e.g. bridge financial support).
It has also been proposed that data collection on the scientific workforce and programme evaluation be improved. It has also been noted that tenure-track positions will not increase, so the recommendations focus on other ways to improve the quality of training and foster other opportunities for independence (e.g. investigators in larger teams and staff scientists).
In Europe, it has been recommended that universities and research institutions: 1) create a more stable and established tenure-track model, 2) allow the creation of a uniform European tenure-track model, toward a reliable and consistent system that would provide researchers with an interchangeable and efficient career path across Europe, taking care that a competitive system does not lead to loss of European talent, 3) provide continuous guidance and support of tenure-track awardees, paying special attention to those that have not been awarded tenure; National Governments should grant universities and research institutions the autonomy and financial means to experiment with the tenure- track process, supporting clarity and transparency; the European Commission should study and possibly fund a tenure-track model for Europe and encourage national governments to open up traditional career paths to new possibilities, removing unnecessary legal barriers.
Is industry the future of scientists?
‘Industry is one career option but there are others
(e.g. government, NGOs, entrepreneurship)’
I’d say that the future for scientists is different than before. Industry is one career option but there are others (e.g. government, NGOs, entrepreneurship). Also, academic scientists will not disappear.
What we are seeing is that there are more and better options than before and hopefully there will also be more career flexibility and fluidity than before. Scientists may want to consider all options as the academic job market saturates and keeps changing. Also, I think it would be important to remove ourselves from a “one job, one track” mind-set as it is very unlikely that that will be the future of jobs in our society.
I am of the opinion that the skills of scientists are very applicable and valuable more broadly in society (one would even wonder if more than in academia, for example) but it requires that we, as scientists, show pro-activity, adjust to the changing landscape and learn how to show our skills and talents outside of our most immediate professional environment.