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The future of the postdoc30 Jun 2015
Today I would like to highlight an interesting article by Kendall Powell which was published recently in Nature (Nature 520, 144–147; 2015). This article is about postdocs’ broken future perspectives.
Although postdoc scientists are strongly driving scientific research, they are often rewarded with low salaries and almost no perspective to advance their career in academia. In fact, although in western countries the number of postdocs in science is on a steady growth line (Powell cites a 150% increase in the USA between 2000 and 2012), the number of permanent positions has remained stable and, in some cases, even shrunk (Nature 472, 276–279; 2011). As a consequence, many postdocs leave academia looking for more stable and better paid positions mainly in the industry. The ones who decide to stay in the labs get trapped in what Powell calls the “permadoc”, a postdoc who stays on indefinitely, with the risk of running into his principal investigator’s retirement and eventually losing their job.

It is obvious that in order to solve this problem, scientific institutions should provide more money and more stable/permanent positions. Actually, running a lab is not everybody’s goal. A lot of scientists want to still be involved in bench work and not in the bureaucracy that comes with a management position. However in times of economic crisis, funding research in general is quite often seen as a luxury. Moreover, with the current funding and grant system, it is very hard to justify increased expenses for the workforce, regardless of how well-prepared the workforce is.

Some countries are trying to tackle the problem from another perspective, i.e. introducing a time limit for postdoc positions. For instance, in December 2014, a committee summoned by the US National Academies proposed a 5-year limit on the length of postdocs. Similar time limits have already been applied in the European Union in particular in the United Kingdom, France and Germany. Being a German company, we can give a feedback on the German system, as this situation was experienced by BMG LABTECH employees.

In Germany, a state law (Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz) limits the presence of researchers (without a permanent position) in academia to 6 years, excluding PhD studies. This was originally done to encourage the absorption of senior postdocs into permanent positions. However, this rule applies only if the postdoc is directly paid with “university money”. Scientists paid on external grants can remain on short-term contracts for an unlimited time. The result is that the stability of postdoc positions has deteriorated further, as everybody tries to get people paid on external grants that are usually short-term contracts (for example 1 year) in order to bypass the law.

We acknowledge that the problem is complex, not limited to a single country and cannot be solved in a fortnight. However, what governments and politics should really consider is whether scientific institutions can afford to lose lots of scientific expertise and mentoring every time senior scientists have to wander from one postdoc to another or move into industry because they see no more perspectives in their current position.



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