EU Bratislava Declaration offers new hope to young researchers

25 Jul 2016113 Shares

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Ministers meeting to discuss the Bratislava Declaration. Image via EC

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A team of EU researchers have curated something called the Bratislava Declaration of Young Researchers, a four-point plan aiming to change how scientific research is conducted from the grassroots level.

Six months ago, some of the EU’s leading researchers – including Dr Shane Bergin and Ciara Judge – were contacted by the European Commission with a challenge: write a proposal that could fundamentally change how scientific research is conducted from a grassroots level.

The Slovak presidency of the EU Council began on 1 July 2016, and this nation’s minister for research, Peter Plavčan, made the call along with the European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas. The review aimed to help find the major flaws that currently limit young researchers in developing their careers the way they want to.

The culmination of that effort has resulted in the Bratislava Declaration of Young Researchers, a bold four-point plan highlighting where exactly many nations’ current research models make things much harder for young researchers to progress.

Submitted to the ministers for science and research across the current 28 EU member states, the declaration focuses on how to enable great people and ideas, ensuring sustainable and transparent career trajectories, a safe research environment, and a good work-life balance.

For those outside the curation process, the points raised would appear quite reasonable. But, speaking to Siliconrepublic.com, University College Dublin professor of science education Bergin admitted that the original proposal underwent a rewrite after they were told it played it a “little safe”.

Bratislava bridge

Bratislava image via Shutterstock

Publish or perish dilemma

Among the major issues that made it into the second draft – which many researchers can attest to – is the problem of ‘publish or perish’ within academia.

First mentioned in the early 20th century, the phrase concerns the perceived pressure on researchers to publish work, regardless of whether it is good research or not, rather than fade into obscurity by conducting long-form research.

“The current ‘publish or perish’ and hyper-competitive environment is toxic to the research endeavour as it encourages extreme individualism, and is linked to an increase in fraudulent science,” the declaration states. “Member states and the EC are enabling this. These issues need to be addressed to create an inclusive, supportive and collegial research culture.”

Current system ‘isn’t fit for purpose’

Among the suggestions to combat this, the multinational team of researchers proposed the support of an EU-wide equality and diversity charter, a reorganisation of funding schemes and the research environment, development of policies of open data, and more ethical behaviour in publishing.

“We really feel like these are big issues, but we think to make the changes required to have this sort of a set-up will mean a systemic change [in the EC],” said Bergin.

“We’re not looking for new grants or tweaking the existing system. We’re looking for a considered review of the way everything is done. But we really felt we’re being put into a system that’s hyper-competitive and being asked to compete with one another in a way that’s not productive both for us and for science.”

When putting the document together with other EU researchers, Bergin said that he was surprised at how unanimous  opinions on what would be best for young researchers were among his European peers.

“We were surprisingly united considering there was such a diversity of backgrounds and research topics, but we all felt the current system isn’t fit for purpose and we could see the potential of science as a positive force in the world,” he said.

Not just jobs, but furthering scientific research

Turning his gaze to Ireland, Bergin said that despite some great positives coming from the Government – such as funding research centres to create jobs in the country – the fact that the word ‘science’ does not appear in any of the current ministerial titles is worrying for Irish research.

Adding to that, he fears that the Government might be too focused on just trying to create jobs, as opposed to doing so alongside promoting better scientific practices.

“There’s a huge amount of merit in creating jobs for researchers but, as we wrote in our opening sentence, science and research has the ability to transform people in society and economy,” Bergin said.

“It echoes what President Michael D Higgins said [last April], when our universities are in an existential crisis not knowing what their roles are, thinking of themselves as engines of economic growth only.”

Siliconrepublic.com has reached out to the Department of Education and Skills and Minister Richard Bruton for a response to the declaration but as of yet, no comment has been received.

Feedback from Irish researchers

In the meantime, while the Bratislava Declaration is being discussed among European ministers with the aim of seeing what is feasible, Bergin hopes that current young Irish researchers can look through it and come to their own conclusions.

“I’d really like, in Ireland, for there to be a group of young researchers who could come together and reflect and respond [to the declaration] and point out to the various groups – funding bodies, universities etc – as to how these things could be implemented in Ireland, which could happen at a local level.”

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Colm Gorey is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com