Permanent positions are scarce in the world of research, and several countries--the ones that are willing to do something about it--are each grappling with the issue their own way. Take Spain, for instance: In 2001, in an effort to bridge postdoctoral and permanent positions, the Spanish government created new research positions via a new mechanism, the Ramón y Cajal programme. Now in its fifth year, this programme offers "a 5-year contract to work as a researcher in a university or in another centre for research, such as the Spanish Council for Scientific Research ( Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, or CSIC), or in a hospital," says Mar Bastero-Gil. Bastero-Gil is a Ramón y Cajal scientist at the Department of Theoretical and Cosmos Physics at the University of Grenada, and President of the National Association of Ramón y Cajal Researchers ( Asociación Nacional de Investigadores Ramón y Cajal, or ANIRC).

The Ramón y Cajal contracts have become very prestigious in Spain, and they are highly competitive. But the futures of many Ramón y Cajal researchers is uncertain. "We have a problem; some are getting in their fifth year, and the end of their contract is approaching," says Rebeca de Nalda Minguez, a former Ramón y Cajal researcher who just found a permanent position at the CSIC. On paper the Ramón y Cajal was launched as a five-year contract whose final aim was to integrate young researchers into the Spanish system permanently, and to encourage the support of research centres. Any mention of this integration disappeared in subsequent calls.

Official texts never claimed that the contracts would be renewable for an additional 5 years, or that they would convert to tenure-track. Yet government representatives implied as much, and this message was widely taken on by the press. These claims were even repeated in job ads by some research centres, says Alejandro Mira Obrador, a Ramón y Cajal researcher at the Department of Microbiology at the Universidad Miguel Hernández and ANIRC Secretary. But the contracts never were--and never became--renewable, and conversions to tenure-track have been few and random. "People with no permanent position are the majority," says Bastero-Gil.

The Spanish government is now trying again, this time with more of an eye toward making the positions permanent, with the launch, in May 2005, of the Promotion of Staff Incorporation and Intensification of Research Activity programme ( Incentivación de la Incorporación e Intensificación de la Actividad Investigadora), widely called the I3 programme.

The Ramón y Cajal Route

"There isn´t really a track" to follow for young scientists wanting a career in Spain, says Bastero-Gil. "You do a Ph.D., then one, two, three postdocs, and after that you will apply for some permanent position. But there aren't many, so what you apply for is a Ramón y Cajal."

The ANIRC puts the number of Ramón y Cajal positions allocated in the first 4 years of the programme at 2239. Two hundred and fifty more were offered in this year's call. "The competition is quite strong, and there is a strong dependence on the [research] area," says CSIC researcher de Nalda Minguez. Ramón y Cajal contracts offer a salary for 5 years, which at first is entirely funded by the government. Universities step up their contribution until the fifth year, when universities must foot most of the bill. Researchers also receive a small pot of research money from the government to initiate the activity; this year the payment was 15,000 euros to be spent during the first two years.

"It doesn't give you . . . lab space; you have to integrate an existing team," says de Nalda Minguez. However, as long as Cajal researchers can find their own research support, "you can follow your own lines of research," as long as they fall within the research group's remit, says Bastero-Gil. For researchers working within universities, "it was assumed that you would have some teaching duties" too, with a maximum of about 120 hours a year.

During their first years, Ramón y Cajal researchers often struggled to find their place within the Spanish research system. "Initially it was an initiative to reinforce Spanish science, but on the ground, we were still considered like postdocs, or students," says Bastero-Gil. The degree of independence and support that was given, as well as the teaching load, varied widely. In fact, says Bastero-Gil, "we are experienced researchers." Now, a few years into the system, she says, Ramón y Cajal researchers feel more settled. "Many of these problems have been solved, because now people are aware of these kinds of problems so they will discuss this in advance."

But all along, another problem was waiting for them at the end of the road. A Ramón y Cajal contract is useful for young researchers, in that it provides breathing space as they prepare to apply for a permanent position, but they do need a permanent position, eventually. According to Bastero-Gil, Ramón y Cajal researchers with no permanent position in sight are a majority. As an example, of the 593 Ramón y Cajal contracts that were given within CSIC institutes in the first 4 years of the programme, "405 are still ongoing, 147 have permanent positions in CSIC centres, and 41 have quit or have positions at other research institutions, the private sector, etc.," says ANIRC Secretary Mira Obrador.

The I3 Programme

"The I3 programme is an initiative from the government trying to promote the hiring of new people in universities, the CSIC, and other research centres," says Bastero-Gil. Provided that researchers have been positively evaluated by the National Evaluation Agency ( Agencia Nacional de Evaluación y Prospectiva , or ANEP) and that the research centre is offering them a permanent position, the government "will offer the institute the equivalent of 3 years salary." Alternatively, the government money may be used to allow people working within universities to concentrate on their research by hiring someone else to do their teaching duties. The I3 programme was designed "having in mind the problems of the Ramón y Cajal, but not only," says Bastero-Gil. Upon positive ANEP evaluation, anyone who has been awarded their thesis more than 6 years ago and has a minimum of 2 years postdoctoral experience in a research institute that is different from their current one may apply.

The government has promised 300 new contracts every year for 3 years. With around 775 Ramón y Cajal contracts given in the first year only, and many other scientists on short-term contracts also looking for a permanent position, the competition is likely to be intense. But though the money has already been paid out, whether the contracts will materialise or not is still an open question. "We are waiting for the reply from the [research] centres," says Bastero-Gil. "There hasn't been yet a unified answer, especially from universities." While the government provides the means, it leaves it up to the regional governments and research centres to decide whether they want, or can afford, to take this opportunity or not.

Consequently, the fate of Ramón y Cajal researchers still depends on their postcode, says Mira Obrador. "In Andalusia or both Castillas they know their regional governments have accepted the offer from the Ministry, but in other regions like Valencia there is no agreement yet." Bastero-Gil reckons that the number of scientists they have to integrate, and the resources they have available, enters into the decision of the individual research centres. "More resources are needed, and this is a step forward in solving the problem," she says.

The ANIRC would like to see more action from the powers-that-be. Mira Obrador says that some Ramón y Cajal scientists, like him, have come back to Spain in the first place on the understanding that a 5+5, or a tenure-track position, was being offered. There certainly has been some disenchantment. "In this case they have a problem now because this year the Ramón y Cajal researchers are finishing their contract. But at some point everybody will have to sit down and decide something not only for now, but for longer," says Bastero-Gil. With 3 years left on her contract, she may be in a better position than the first Ramón y Cajal scientists. But "by then, it will be the end of the I3 programme." Though the government has promised to evaluate and revise the programme, Bastero-Gil remains unconvinced. "I really don't know what will happen."

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.