OECD report on reducing the precarity of academic research careers

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The new OECD policy report published in May on “Reducing the precarity of academic research careers” presents policy recommendations and practices from different countries on improving researchers’ well-being, develop more equitable and diverse research systems, attract and retain the best talent in academia, and improve the quality of sciences. The report uses the terminology “research precariat” to refer to postdoctoral researchers holding fixed-term positions without permanent or continuous employment prospects.

According to the OECD, at international level, there is currently little comparable data on personnel working in research and development, especially those in non-standard employment, which makes it particularly difficult to have a clear picture of the precarity of research careers across countries. The report highlights that the Covid-19 pandemic is worsening the career prospects of postdoctoral researchers and is having a detrimental effect on their wellbeing. Younger researchers are more likely to be affected by precarity and by the negative effects of the pandemic in this regard. Furthermore, female researchers are disproportionately affected by these conditions and many “drop out” during the transition from early to midcareer. There are also concerns about the diversity of the researcher workforce as a whole, and a perception that only those researchers from privileged backgrounds can afford prolonged precarity.

The working conditions of researchers in universities and public research organisations has been of
concern in the OECD countries for some time, and despite increasing public investment in science this concern persists. In many countries it even appears to be increasing. In Germany, 77% of postdoctoral researchers in universities have a fixed-term contract while in Switzerland 80% of scientific staff are on short-term contracts. The OECD recommends the inclusion of fixed-term contracted postgraduate researchers in salary scales comparable to permanent academic staff. Data shows that 28% of researchers earn less than 30 000 USD per year. ETUCE’s long standing demand is to ensure indefinite work contracts and good working conditions for the researchers.

The report underlines the importance of including academic researchers and all relevant stakeholders in the governance and coordination of research careers through social dialogue. ETUCE believes all postdoctoral researchers must be involved in the policy-making processes affecting them. Social dialogue and collective bargaining are strongly related to the improvement of research and quality of higher education. Involving all university stakeholders in the conversation can reduce research precarity and improve working conditions, which ultimately leads to the improvement of the quality of science.

The full report is available on the OECD website.