It’s time for young researchers to have a voice

15 Nov 2016

Meeting of young researchers based in Ireland at UCD on 3 November. Image: UCD

Shane Bergin of the School of Education in University College Dublin (UCD) says governments need to include young researchers in any plans and strategies to improve future conditions. After all, they will be the most affected.

As a human endeavour for common good, scientific and scholarly research plays a special role in Ireland – one that has the ability to transform people and society. The passion, ideas and curiosity that young people bring to research sustain it.

I believe more should be done to recognise the special role that young researchers play and to better empower them. Great ideas and ability are separate from age.

On 3 November, I was part of a group of early-stage researchers who met the Minister of State for Training, Skills and Innovation, John Halligan, TD. The meeting is part of an ongoing process between the Minister and young researchers; a forum to share experiences of what it’s like to be a young Irish researcher and our ideas to better enable young people to fully participate in research.

Declaration for young researchers

Earlier this year, the European Commission and the Slovak presidency of the Council of the EU invited 15 young researchers to write the Bratislava Declaration for Young Researchers. BT Young Scientist winner Ciara Judge and I were two of the authors. The declaration outlines the aspirations that authors have for research and for researchers.

This exercise was seen as rather an unusual move for the somewhat bureaucratic Commission, but also as one that has had considerable impact. An enthusiastic Robert-Jan Smits, director general for the Commission’s directorate on research and innovation, presented us with a blank page for our thoughts, aspirations and ideas.

‘It struck me time and time again that young researchers love what they do. It was not, however, entirely clear to us that the systems in which we work love us’

Despite the geographic and disciplinary diversity of the young researchers, consensus was quickly reached on topics that demanded attention. We focused on empowering people’s ideas, sustainable and transparent career trajectories, work-life balance, and the research environment. As we reflected on our experiences and refined our ideas, it struck me time and time again that young researchers love what they do. It was not, however, entirely clear to us that the systems in which we work love us.

Our collective vision for research and its impacts on society were optimistic. Unreasonable employment rights, unstable contract conditions, hyper-competition for positions, and lack of diversity in the community of researchers were seen as toxic to the ideals of research.

The authors took their task seriously. This was not taken as an opportunity to complain about negative personal experiences. We looked, perhaps through the optimistic lens of youth, at how the issues affecting young researchers go beyond the individual to affect the collective enterprise of research; to issues such as ethics, equality, education and societal impact. The full text of the declaration can be found here.

The Bratislava Declaration was presented to EU member states in Slovakia in July 2016. While ministers with responsibility for research from across the EU and the Commission prepare their official response, the declaration has attracted interested and, I’m glad to say, has had positive effects. Having invited young researchers to share their research hopes and dreams, I feel the Commission realises that this means considering its content when framing future work.

Much work is underway for the Bratislava Declaration to influence the successor to Horizon 2020 – the EU’s €80bn research and innovation programme.

Bringing it to Ireland

Perhaps inspired by the positive reception the Bratislava Declaration received by key decision-makers in Europe, I approached Minister Halligan to explore how the declaration could affect young Irish researchers. He was extremely supportive. His department and I convened a group of 12 young researchers based in Ireland, spanning age, stage, academic discipline, and geography. The Minister asked us to “reflect on the Bratislava Declaration, consider which issues are of particular importance within Ireland, and to imagine possible ways to pursue the vision set out in the Bratislava Declaration here in Ireland”.

On 3 November, this cohort of researchers met in UCD and got to work. Minister Halligan joined us for a refreshingly informal discussion in the afternoon. We put suggestions to him to realise the ideals of the Bratislava Declaration for young researchers in Ireland.

Our group focused on the issues of short-term contracts, equity of access to graduate-level education, researchers’ mental health and wellbeing, and the importance of educational experiences that value creativity and independence, such as BT Young Scientist and transition year. Methods to better equip professors who run research groups were mooted and there was a strong sense that the impact of the research we carry out should be more than writing papers.

‘I feel it is essential that governments, funding bodies and universities sustain a dialogue with young researchers’

Whilst considering our collective motivations for carrying out research, the group certainly felt these did not align with the ways we are judged and assessed in our careers. The fact that the young researchers present wished to see their research have wider impacts on Irish society is one that should be encouraged and supported.

Our group praised initiatives that we felt were working well for young researchers and offered potential solutions to address areas that we felt required more work. In the coming months, our group will work with Minister Halligan to explore our ideas.

Having presented the Bratislava Declaration to various agencies, higher education colleagues and other key people, I’ve often been told: ‘We are aware of these issues and have policies in place to address them’.

In one sense, I am reassured that the various groups that feed into the [research] machine are aware of many of the issues that limit or frustrate young researchers. I feel this means we don’t need to work to change hearts and minds – this comes as a relief.

Despite this alignment, I do find myself asking the question, ‘If you have policies and strategies to address our common concerns, why are they not working or indeed, not being implemented?’ I recognise that the issues raised by young researchers are complex. To address them in a comprehensive manner, I feel it is essential that governments, funding bodies and universities sustain a dialogue with young researchers – ensuring they become an active part of policy development, implementation and evaluation.

By Shane Bergin

Shane Bergin is a physicist and  professor of science education at University College Dublin.