A basic entitlement to employees' rights regardless of career stage, the reduction of bureaucracy for a smoother transition between two research positions, and the selection of candidates based on their true professional value--these are the main changes young Spanish scientists would like to see in their country's system for research careers.

In a recent report entitled "Research Careers in Spain: Handicaps and Proposals", the Federación de Jóvenes Investigadores (FJI)/Precarios (Young Researchers' Federation/Precarios) have given scientific careers within Spanish universities and public research organisations an uncompromising look. And they found that, if Spanish scientists share most of the banes of young researchers across Europe, some issues are even exacerbated by the Spanish research culture.

Most vulnerable stages

While the professional life of Spanish academics broadly goes through the four traditional phases of predoctoral researcher ( Ayudante), postdoctoral researcher ( Ayudante Doctor), lecturer, and finally permanent research staff, it is early stage and transitional stage career scientists which have been identified as the most vulnerable.

In the eyes of the FJI too many PhD students tend to pick a host research group based on a personal contact or a grant opportunity rather than the quality of the project or even their research interest. In addition to little information being available about the various research departments, opportunities are hard to come by. Regardless of the needs of the research groups, only one grant may be allocated per group under the Spanish Ministry of Science and Technology ( McyT) FPI programme ( Formación de Personal Investigador). Also, PhD students have to time their application well as these grants often come with a strict starting date.

Financial hardship is another feature that the FJI identified at the beginning of a research career. Because of the slow processing of grant applications by funding bodies, students often have to start working for their PhD before knowing the outcome of their application. "[This] makes unpaid working periods of several months a usual practice before the official appointment [of the PhD student]," the report said. PhD students are also especially vulnerable towards the end of their PhD, as eligibility restrictions are preventing them to anticipate their next career move. "For many postdoctoral announcements, having obtained the PhD degree or having handed in the PhD thesis in a university is a requirement [prior] to the application," the report said.

Alas postdocs are also not immune to such periods of unpaid work or even career interruptions, because even though the starting date for a new position tends to be close to the allocation of the grant, the FJI reports delays as long as 8 months before the names of the grant-holders are actually announced. Their situation is made even more precarious by the short duration of the grants themselves, being routinely only 2 years or less. In addition to instability this means that postdocs need to spend a lot of time in their career looking for their next position, to the detriment of their research.

And according to the report, opportunities here are scarce again. "Research projects featuring budget allocations for personnel are not frequent in Spain and are restricted to some areas," explained the report. Thus most postdocs have to rely on funding from the Spanish autonomic regions (CCAA) or the EU, through programmes which themselves have very long selection processes. "Thus, potential candidates, especially foreign candidates, often decide to accept positions in other countries," the report continued.

Grant-holders lack legal rights

Even successful grant holders, pre- and postdoctoral researchers alike, have to deal with numerous issues down the line. "The research grant-holders lack labour rights guaranteed by a legal contract and therefore take part in a system in which length, remuneration, requirements, and rights are arbitrarily determined by the institution financing the grant," concluded the report. Although a new law has recently been passed in an attempt to improve the situation, the FJI disapproves of the minimum cover for sickness, disability, pregnancy leave, and retirement that it offers, along with no right to paid holidays, redundancy allowance, and unemployment benefits.

Moreover, the new law only applies to researchers with less than 2 years' postdoc experience who work in a public institution, on a grant that covers a minimum duration of 1 year and falls above a salary threshold. And if you even manage to fulfil all those requirements, it is still up to the grant-giving organisation to comply with the new decree or not.

Pre- and postdoctoral researchers' duties, whether on a grant or a contract, were often reported to be ill-defined according to the FJI --sometimes leaving young scientists in a situation of defencelessness. As the report put it, "in many cases university departments use this option to force these researchers to carry out unpaid, unrecognised teaching duties."

Once young researchers have gone through the first two stages of their career, their situation seems to get a little easier when they are eligible for research contracts such as Ramon y Cajal ( RyC). These programmes have been designed to help young scientists develop their own research group in a transition period before they may obtain a permanent position. The FJI viewed the 2004 Ramon y Cajal contracts as a positive improvement on the previous Repatriation Contracts ( Contratos de Reincorporación), for running over a course of 5 years instead of three, the research independence they offer, and the additional cash injection at the beginning of the project.

However, "despite initial hints about the integration of [scientists on] RyC contracts" within their host institution in the medium and long-term, "reality is different," the report warned. "In fact this programme was initially conceived as a 5+5 programme (5 years of contract and an extension of five more years on positive evaluation) but finally was a 5+0 (no extension possibility)." Also, financial support is often insufficient especially at the initial phase, which means that "in most cases RyC researchers are obliged to join an already existing research group in order to be able to use the instruments and space to develop their work." This is said by the FJI to contribute to the centralisation of research and make it more difficult for young researchers to investigate new lines of research.

As highlighted in the report, another objective of the Ramon y Cajal programme was to attract foreign researchers in Spanish labs. However the FJI identified "the low competitiveness of this programme compared to similar contract offers in other countries in relation to the economic endowment, budget, possibilities to create a group, and future stability" as a major hindrance to the programme's success in this respect. Research careers in Spain are also made less attractive to non-EU researchers in particular due to the additional restrictions that apply to their eligibility for permanent contracts, which are traditionally seen as civil servants positions.

New laws, regulations, and recommendations--will they help?

New laws and regulations have now been introduced in an attempt to overcome these restrictions by allowing the appointment of permanent, but non-civil servant staff under the name of PCDs ( Profesor Contratado Doctor). Although it is too early to evaluate the impact this will have on research careers in Spain, the FJI expressed some concerns: "We deem it necessary to take steps to prevent candidates with poorer records from using the PCD [system] to bypass the [traditional selection] procedure [for permanent staff], and to avoid the creation of two layers of "1st class" (civil servant) and "2nd class" (non-civil servant) appointees." The FJI also deplored the lack of appropriate monitoring of the research and teaching activities carried out by permanent staff and the lack of incentives for productivity, which they identified as a threat to the quality of Spanish research.

The FJI made a number of recommendations to both improve the working conditions of scientists and the quality of Spanish science. They identified the "interruption of a scientific career and funding gaps between research stages" as a key hurdle in the professional life of young researchers and took the view that "steps must be taken to avoid [this]." These could allow PhD students to start applying for postdoc positions before the completion of their thesis, and the acceleration of the applications' selection. One year of funding could also be added at the end of the traditional 4-year PhD, during which newly graduated researchers would gain extra lab experience while being covered financially as a bridge to their first postdoc position.

One of the other major changes the FJI would like to see in their country is the replacement of grants with proper employment contracts that come with full social security cover. Unlike the current, albeit rare, pre- and postdoctoral contracts commonly renewable on a year-to-year basis, the new ones should cover a longer period unless negative evaluation of the researcher's work is the case. As for the researchers' teaching load, the FJI recommended that "mechanisms for the proper recognition and regulation of such duties must be introduced."

The report also made recommendations for the Ramon y Cajal contracts. Even though the 2004 RyC programme offers space for increased funding and more flexibility, the FJI would like to see increased funding for more independence. "Ramon y Cajal researchers must be provided with an installation allocation sufficient to begin their research with the necessary equipment, without depending on other groups," the FJI argued. Importantly, the RyC contracts should provide for the hiring of pre- and postdoctoral staff, as opposed to the current catch-22 situation where the scientists must apply for extra funding based on the quality of their ongoing research. The report also called for the Ramon y Cajal programmes to be more consistent from year to year in terms of when they are delivered and the number of contracts they offer. The 2004 programme saw the number of research contracts reduced by an approximate half.

The FJI also identified the adequate advertising of research positions and the transparency of the selection process as an important area for action, for the sake of open competition rather than internal promotion. International mobility should also be encouraged with the provision of additional funding, to improve research training and the quality of research itself through international collaborations.

The FJI's wish-list for changes may be long and uncompromising but this doesn't mean it is unrealistic, as illustrated by the Juan de la Cierva programme ( JdC). This new funding programme of the Spanish government offers postdoctoral positions to researchers with less than 3 years' postdoctoral experience and, as the FJI highlighted, it features "longer contracts, absence of the requirement to have the Ph.D. degree [before application], higher flexibility in the date of incorporation of candidates, and no discrimination by nationality."

Still, as usual it all seems to come down to hard cash. "The small budgets of research groups, the impossibility of appointing personnel by means of contracts, and delays in payments are common topics in Spanish science," concluded the report. "In fact, this lack of funding is one of the major problems that hamper the productivity of the Spanish research groups." What is needed above all to change the face of research careers in Spain is the increase of the investment in R&D across the board.

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.