Science - February 17, 2005

Editorial/ Postdocs

Wageningen postdocs are satisfied with their employer, according to the conclusions of a survey published in the American journal The Scientist last week. Wageningen UR is fourteenth on the list of best employers for postdocs outside the United States.
You might wonder how representative the research is. The Scientist carried out the same survey a year ago, but ended up with very different results. Most of the institutes that were in the top fifteen in 2004 are nowhere on the list this year. That is probably due to the small number of questionnaires that were completed, upon which the hit list is based. One or two satisfied or, more to the point, dissatisfied postdocs who fill in the questionnaire can make all the difference.
The Wageningen postdocs that Wb phoned were surprised at the results. Their reactions indicate that the young researchers are indeed satisfied with the research climate, but far less happy with their legal position. Modern laboratories, library facilities and good supervision put the young researchers in a position of being able to conduct innovative research, but after three temporary contracts, however promising they are, they have to go in search of a new employer. Permanent contracts are out of the question.

Their weak position in terms of job security is not just a problem at Wageningen UR. All Dutch universities are composed of greying staff that occupy the permanent positions. There is hardly any room for young researchers.
It is not the case however that those in charge are not aware of the problem. Universities have been writing policy memos for years with proposals for change, but to no effect up to now. The heart of the matter: money. Universities and research institutes have been facing shrinking budgets for years, and simply do not have the money for permanent contracts. It is almost always possible to find external funding for a temporary project, but there is no room to offer researchers permanent jobs. And because there is always a new young researcher straining at the leash to get going there is also no pressure on employers to do their best to give someone a permanent job.
In Wageningen, this problem of young researchers is one of the most important issues in the negotiations surrounding the reorganisations in the research institutes. The executive board would like to be able to get away from the principle of ‘last in, first out’ so that it could hold on to promising young researchers.
Union representatives understand this wish, but also of course want to defend the interests of their older members. It is to be hoped that the unions and management will find a way out of this impasse. If they manage it would increase Wageningen’s chances considerably of being in the top fifteen best work places for postdocs next year.

Korné Versluis