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Thomas Schäfer: Launching the Young Academy of Europe

 Last December in Brussels, more than 70 scientists, policymakers, and representatives of European funding bodies gathered to explore how Europe could better support the next generation of scientists. The meeting marked the official launch of the Young Academy of Europe (YAE), a pan-European, grassroots association of top young scientists intended to foster scientific exchange and networking and to influence science policy.


The meeting marked the official launch of the Young Academy of Europe (YAE), a pan-European, grassroots association of top young scientists intended to foster scientific exchange and networking and to influence science policy.

At the origin of YAE are 15 excellent young researchers who have all received Starting Grants from the European Research Council (ERC) to establish independent research groups. Science Careers talked to Thomas Schäfer, one of the 15 founders (from Germany, the Netherlands, Israel, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom) and current vice chair of YAE, about what motivated the group and what they hope to achieve. Schäfer now leads theNano Bio Separations Group at the University of the Basque Country’s Institute for Polymer Materials (Polymat) in Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain.

These interview highlights were edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: How did the idea for YAE come about?

T.S.: It all started with a few people in Germany who, in 2010, together with the DFG [Germany's national funding body], organized the Starting Grant meeting in Potsdam. I’m working in Spain, but being German, they also invited me. We learned that there were many different ways of doing science and ways to be respected as a young researcher—or not—and that Germany was just as inhomogeneous as the whole of Europe. If you receive suddenly a tool to be independent, like an ERC grant, you see how well or how badly your institution responds, and this prompted us to identify weak points in the system and to give feedback to the ERC.

We also thought that it could be nice to network across Europe and just exchange ideas. So that was just an idea that we started, and then it developed really into something nice and we organized ourselves a bit better.

Q: What kind of differences did you find across institutions?

T.S.: For example, while overheads are included in the grant, some people were asked to pay an additional payment for their laboratory space. When signing the contract with the ERC, the host institution declares that it will provide all the necessary conditions for the PI [principal investigator] to conduct the scientific work outlined in the accepted proposal, which naturally includes space. And in Germany—this has since changed in some places but not all—if you are not a full professor then you’re dependent on a senior colleague to co-supervise Ph.D. students.

And this you can see also across Europe. If you go to Spain, you find places that actually provide you with fantastic facilities to do your work, and some others maybe they want you to pay for that. Concerning supervising Ph.D. students, it is very nice: You can just be an assistant professor and you have the right to be a Ph.D. supervisor.

And then you can find institutions, both in Spain and in Germany, that are very recognized and very established, where maybe you do not have much freedom, and much smaller universities that do not have this established reputation but that are much more flexible and help much more the researcher to do the work. So an ERC grant is a very nice kind of a sensor to see which institution is capable of responding with flexibility and which is not, and which maybe doesn’t even care because the majority of its employees are public servants with permanent positions, and not all are active researchers.

Q: Those of us on the outside tend to equate winning a Starting Grant with securing great conditions to do your work. You seem to be saying that this is not always the case.

T.S.: Oh, no, not at all. It can be, of course, but it depends on where you work. If you are working in a public institution, then this public institution has to obey national law, for example. In the case of Spain, this means that if you want to hire a Ph.D. student who is from outside the European Union, you have to go through ahomologation procedure, which takes at least a year. This means that when the ERC says you can freely hire your team members, it’s not possible, because nobody will wait for a year. The ERC has fantastic ideas and very nice rules, but of course they cannot impose their rules on all institutions. If the rules locally are very conservative and restrictive, then you might face the situation that you have a wonderful grant but you cannot really take all the advantage of it. And this is even more the case when you go to countries where maybe institutional flexibility is not so high, like in some of the central and Eastern European countries, where you may be the only person with an ERC Grant in the whole country.

If your institution does not adapt and is not willing to change, you have the portability of the grant and you can go somewhere else. But you might have a family or social circumstances that do not allow you to change institutions. Also, I have colleagues in Spain who are professors or public servants, so if they go to another place, they may have to give up their permanent job. So this portability is a must, but it does not resolve everything.

Q: So what does YAE aim to do?

T.S.: In the first place, what we would like to do is give feedback, above all to the ERC but also to any science policymaker, on the possibilities of young scientists to become independent, and about funding opportunities. For example, the Starting Grants are wonderful, but what happens afterwards? In Spain, we practically don’t have any national funding. And this is a problem because, in fact, you launch quite a lot of promising people, and just when they are launched, you suddenly cut the feed. I am not saying that they should automatically give us follow-up funding, but there should be opportunities. This is worrying because, of course, colleagues that are working for example in the United States, they’re asking me, would you be willing to come to our university? This is a pity because the ERC invests a lot of money and then maybe these people are lost.

Another of the main concerns that we have is the situation in central and Eastern Europe. Many researchers there do not have much support locally for writing their grants and neither do they have colleagues with ERC grants to really get feedback from. So you are much more on your own, and your success depends on whether the reviewer is capable of filtering your draft or the way you write and see the idea behind it. Another aspect is their low visibility. If you have been working in Max Planck or in Oxford or Cambridge or if you have been to the United States at Harvard [University], you already have this bonus of having been in very famous places. It can be very unfair. So we are trying to link up with national contact points, with authorities, with people to organize small events like the one in Vienna [which was organized by the ERC]. We want to create a platform to get in touch, to say, "We are here. We are available. Maybe we can bring you in touch with colleagues that you don’t know of who have a grant."

Another working group that we are going to start is on scientific integrity. The pressure is so high on young researchers, and if you think of how people do their curriculum and how they have to sell themselves, how they have to do marketing of their work, I think it is a bit worrying sometimes where science goes. And especially for the very young researchers that enter the system, they should learn the best way of doing science.

One last issue, which is trivial but not yet resolved: the portability of social security payments. This is a shame because this has already been discussed for many years at the European Commission level, but it has not been put into practice.

Q: How many of you are now in YAE?

T.S.: We are accepting people continuously, but now we are about 70. What we would like is to have as many people joining as possible. In Brussels, it was really wonderful to see that almost all of the people there—from different domains, different countries, different backgrounds—shared very much the same concerns. You see that there is a need to do something about these issues and actually that the ideas are there, so the more we are and the better we succeed in channeling these ideas, the more likely this can be a nice opportunity to change something.

Q: Is the YAE only open to ERC Starting Grantees?

T.S.: For now, yes, but that is changing. When you are thinking about the experiences and situation of young researchers, the problems that they face, actually it’s not only a problem of ERC Starting Grants. But we are very much aware that we are privileged, because at least we can be independent and we have visibility. So we are trying to use this visibility in a good way by telling institutions, "Ok, if you are so proud and so happy about the money, then you also have to listen to us." This is why we had the Starting Grant criteria in the beginning, but of course we cannot keep that if we think at the same time that there are lots and lots of excellent researchers out there that do not have the Starting Grant. Now people already know more or less who we are, we don’t have to prove anymore that we are serious about what we want, so from next year on, we will open it up for other excellence programs.

Also, since this is absolutely bottom-up, this young academy, nothing is static. So if somebody tells us, "Look, you should be completely open," and has good reasons for this and has a way to maintain the idea behind the whole association, then that would also be discussed.

Q: How can people join?

T.S.: Until the end of 2013, anybody with a Starting Grant can join. They need to send us a motivation letter—up to 1 page where you just say why you would like to join and what you would like to work on—and a CV. Then, starting in 2014, if somebody does not have a Starting Grant but has been selected for some other excellence program, this person can nominate him or herself or get in touch with one of us at the Young Academy, or someone at Academia Europaea who could sponsor him or her. For others, we are setting up a forum and Web site where people can inform and contribute. We don’t want to be an ERC Starting Grant club; we want to be a platform and to be open.

Q: Is YAE related to the other young academies established lately?

T.S.: No. There is one clear difference. All these young academies that exist, they are really top-down, they have been created because established academies wanted to have a young academy. What we wanted to do is establish a platform, a network, so we are really bottom-up because we live our concerns every day and nobody told us to do what we are doing.

Having said that, when we started 2 years ago to talk about this, André Mischke, the chair of the Young Academy, was in touch with somebody from Academia Europaea. Academia Europaea thought it would be nice to be in touch with young people, and we also thought it could be nice to be in touch with the older generation. So we have been affiliated to Academia Europaea, but as an absolutely independent section. It proves to be quite nice because you are testing also your concerns, but we want to remain independent.

Q: What is your personal motivation for being involved?

T.S.: It takes a lot of time, but we realized that we are the next-generation researchers, so we have to take a bit of action, we have to be there, we cannot just lay back.

And it’s a bit of being angry also. You are angry about things you lived yourself and you’re angry about things that you see others go through. I had postdocs that were absolutely excellent, aged 43 or 45, and they would be looking for permanent positions not because they wanted to relax but because they simply wanted to have a long-term vision in their work. I too went from postdoc to postdoc to postdoc, and I don’t think this is the right way to do science. Overall, there is respect missing toward the profession, and if you just would let people go for it, I think they would do marvelous things. Maybe one in a hundred would do something wrong and waste money and maybe do research that is not interesting, but at the moment, the bureaucratic way that research is handled in many places in Europe makes 99% pay for 1% that might go wrong. We have to be a bit more generous to somehow unleash the potential.

What we need is really what the ERC does. You’ve got a Starting Grant, which has a lot of prestige, so it gives you the authority to decide yourself how you want to design your research. I think there should be even more such opportunities so that there’s a turnaround in how science is done. There are many places where science is done fantastically, but there also is a huge amount of institutions where it is very old-fashioned still. People that happen to work there, they have hardly a chance to make a career on their own.

YAE will hold its second annual meeting in September in Wroclaw, Poland, where it will also contribute to the 25th anniversary conference of Academia Europaea. Keep an eye on the YAE Web site for more details to come.