On a snowy Friday and Saturday in early December, 70 early-career researchers took a break from their busy schedules to gather in Brussels for the launch of the Young Academy of Europe, an “independent association of top young scholars.”
It is the first grassroots organization in Europe—and possibly the world—formed by and on behalf of early-career scientists, those who would be at the tenure-track, assistant professorship level in the U.S., explains Leif Schröder, the secretary for the new organization and a research group leader at the Leibniz Institute for Molecular Pharmacology in Berlin.
These younger scientists have their own particular issues. One is to advocate for research funding for those just starting out as budget get squeezed across the region because of the financial crisis. Another is to help early-career scientists succeed amid hierarchical academic structures in many European countries that trap them below senior professors. Other goals include helping early-career scientists negotiate lab space, teaching duties, and salary as well as the logistics challenges of frequent moves across national boundaries such as how to transfer retirement savings.
Although several learned societies—in Sweden, Germany, and Israel, for example—have created divisions or working groups for younger members, the Young Academy is the first association of early-career scientists to be formed from the bottom up, explains Thomas Schäfer, vice chair of the group’s board. He is a chemical engineer at the University of the Basque Country, in San Sebastian, Spain. “We are here because we feel strongly about making a difference, not because senior academics have asked us” to join the young members’ division of an existing society, he explains.
As C&EN went to press, the group had 45 members and 10 pending members. All members are currently recipients of prestigious European Research Council (ERC) early-career grants, but the Young Academy organizers have plans to eventually open membership to young scholars across Europe.
In the works for two years, the Young Academy began advocating for its members this fall, before the group became official at the Brussels launch in December. In October, the group partnered with Academia Europaea, a pan-European learned society, to launch a successful petition, signed by more than 150,000 people worldwide, that asks for stable research funding within the European Union. The timing of the petition was critical, Schröder says, because the government is currently trying to iron out a budget for the period 2014–20 in the face of serious economic problems.
Going forward, the group plans to lobby policymakers on behalf of early-career scientists, who face a diverse range of issues in Europe, says Nicole Grobert, a materials scientist at Oxford University.
The group wants to help young scholars who struggle to launch independent research programs amid the hierarchical academic structures in Europe. Senior professors sometimes claim the ideas of early-career researchers as their own or they may insist on being listed as an author on academic papers—even as the corresponding author—when they have had no input or leadership in the research. Sometimes early-career researchers can have entirely supervised and funded a graduate student yet not be allowed to grant a Ph.D. to that student, Schäfer notes.
The Young Academy also wants to address the challenges faced by young scholars in financially strapped countries, such as those in the former Eastern Bloc or in places such as Greece, Portugal, and Spain. Those countries are at the center of Europe’s current economic crisis, and their R&D budgets are either small or getting squeezed .
In addition, the Young Academy also aims to help members network with other early-career scientists in Europe, foster exchange of research ideas within the diverse group of scientists, and enhance their ability to communicate to the public and media, Schäfer points out.
The Young Academy had its beginnings two years ago in Potsdam, Germany—a picturesque town outside Berlin well-known for being the site of post-World War II negotiations among the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, the U.S.’s Harry S. Truman, and Britain’s Winston Churchill—but which has since become a popular site for conferences and retreats.
In 2010, the German Research Foundation, the main research funding agency in the country, hosted a conference in Potsdam for winners of prestigious, multi-million-euro ERC starting grants who were either based in Germany (of any nationality) or were based abroad (with German nationality).
At this meeting, a handful of these participants, including Schröder and Schäfer, got to talking about the problems they faced as ERC grant holders in Germany, Spain, and elsewhere. These issues included how to understand some of the grant’s complicated rules and how to negotiate teaching duties or for lab space with institutions that wished to host them but did not want to offer the infrastructure they needed.
Even though the researchers were working at diverse institutions across Europe in many different fields of science, “there was an aha! moment,” recalls Schäfer. “We realized we had many of the same challenges.”
“We wanted to stay connected,” says André Mischke, chair of the Young Academy board and a subatomic scientist at the University of Utrecht, in the Netherlands. Over the course of 2011, the small group of ERC grant holders began to talk about establishing a pan-European society to support young scholars. “We thought that if we act together and not as individuals we can achieve more,” Schäfer says.
By the fall of 2011, this handful of Young Academy founding members had doubled in size to about a dozen ERC early-career grantees from a variety of countries and nationalities simply through word of mouth and e-mail. The larger group then met in Paris in September 2011 to discuss everything from membership criteria to possible lobbying topics.
In the subsequent year, they have written letters to ERC announcing their intentions and received vocal support from ERC President Helga Nowotny and from policymakers in the European Commission. “Young researchers actively influencing European science policy is what we need,” said Waldemar Kütt, a deputy for Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, who is the research, innovation, and science commissioner in Brussels. “Your voice is important to hear,” he told attendees at the academy launch.
The group also sought the collaboration with Academia Europaea, looking for advice on the best way to get organized, Mischke notes. The Young Academy has since created a board of directors and a council, as well as established three group domains in physical, biological, and social sciences.
To help cover the costs of the Brussels launch conference, the group sought financial support from a European agency called Cooperation in Science & Technology. That agency covered the travel expenses of attendees. Organizers then invited all 2,000 current ERC starting grant recipients who might be interested in Young Academy membership to attend. With just a few months’ notice, the inaugural gathering welcomed 70 registrants, the organizers note.
The two-day meeting featured talks from high-level science policy makers in Europe as well as workshops led by current Young Academy leaders to discuss the issues the group could tackle. The meeting also included a discussion about extending membership beyond ERC grant holders.
But those ERC grants are an important part of the group’s initial strategy. It wants to take advantage of its members’ status as prestigious ERC starting grant holders to gain prominence and respect in Brussels, where much of the Young Academy lobbying would likely take place, Schäfer explains. “We want to be seen as scientific leaders,” Mischke adds.
Then beginning in January 2014, the group will open up membership to early-career researchers across Europe. Entrance will require a letter of intent from the prospective member plus references from two current Young Academy members.
“We don’t want it to stay as a network of ERC starting grant leaders,” Mischke explains. “We don’t want to keep people out; we want to get people in.”
Many attendees at the launch conference expressed interest in joining the Young Academy. “This was much better than expected,” said Emilio M. Pérez Álvarez, an organic chemist at the Madrid Institute for Advanced Studies. “I came here to network, but I’ve learned a lot. Just at this table we have people working in Sweden, Spain, and the U.K. We all have similar problems. Some problems that I thought were just in Spain are everywhere.”
The challenge for the Young Academy will be to focus the enthusiasm they’ve generated, said Roie Yerushalmi, a materials scientist at Hebrew University who attended the group’s Brussels launch. The Young Academy has “really got the ball rolling,” he said. “But now they’ve got to steer it.” ◾