To Have and Have Not

Koen van Dam is fortunate. A Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Energy and Industry at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, he receives a full salary including social security benefits, such as a right to a pension. Although Van Dam hopes to earn more once he gets his Ph.D., the monthly stipend of about €2300 ensures he has enough to support himself.

It’s a far cry from the experience of scientists in other parts of Europe, like Kristian Vlahovicek, who completed a Ph.D. in bioinformatics at Zagreb University in Croatia in 2000 and who now works there as an assistant professor. In Croatia, the average salary for a graduate student like Van Dam is a mere €650 per month, whereas an assistant professor can hope to push this up to about €900–hardly sufficient for maintaining a decent standard of living in the eyes of most Croatian researchers.

“I’m quite lucky, because many colleagues in other countries cannot fully support themselves while working on their Ph.D. thesis and do not have any form of social security, for example,” explains Van Dam, who is also the president of Eurodoc, a Europe-wide federation of 28 national associations that represent Ph.D. students and other researchers. “These are genuine inequalities and more than just a difference in the costs of living across Europe.”

It’s an assertion supported by two recent reports on European salaries and stipends. But for many scientists, living, studying, and working in a low-paying country means finding creative ways to earn money and save money. At the same time, organizations are trying to find ways to supplement salaries by rewarding good work.

Shocking Differences

In April this year, the Research Directorate-General at the European Commission published a report looking at researchers’ salaries across Europe. In Bulgaria, for example, the average annual salary is a mere €3500 for all researchers and a meagre €1960 for those with 4 years or less of research experience. At the opposite end of the scale, in Switzerland, the average annual remuneration for all researchers is more than €82,700, and a young researcher can hope to get slightly less than €40,000 a year.

A similar study examining doctoral programmes in European universities, by the European University Association (EUA), found that Eastern European countries, such as Croatia, Romania, and the Czech Republic, generally had minimum annual Ph.D. stipendsof less than €5000 per year. In most of the rest of Europe, the funding ranged from €7000 to €21,000, although the Netherlands paid on average €24,000 and Denmark and Norway paid more than €30,000 to Ph.D. candidates.

A Deep Divide

“This disparity in salaries is caused by large economic differences among different European countries as well as different levels of investment,” explains EUA’s Sandra Bitusikova, who co-ordinated the survey. “But salary is an important issue when applying for jobs, and you have much fewer young scientists applying for jobs in postsocialist countries compared to ‘richer’ countries. This is causing a serious brain-drain problem in some Eastern European countries.”

Researchers on the ground such as Petr Svoboda at the Institute of Molecular Genetics in Prague, Czech Republic, would agree. “Czech postdocs typically have a poor basic salary,” he says. Postdocs often receive grant money to raise their salaries to an acceptable level, “but it is not competitive with western countries, so there is a continuous drain of Czech postdocs to the west and across the Atlantic.”

Like Van Dam, Svoboda is one of the lucky ones. Coupled with a grant from the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), a part-time teaching contract with Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, and a fellowship from the Czech Academy of Sciences, his take-home pay is quite high compared with salaries in the Czech Republic and not far off those of many Western institutions, once social security and health care are taken into account. However, he is acutely aware of the salary differentials. He knows it will be very difficult to keep his Ph.D. students and research assistant both motivated and properly paid.

“Low salaries make many bright people decide to leave research because the joy of discovering something new is simply not worth it when you face problems like having a family and paying a mortgage,” he adds.

Quality of life is a common concern. Nesrin Özören is an assistant professor in molecular biology and genetics at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Turkey. The base salary for her position in Turkish state universities fluctuates between €800 and €950 depending on the currency rates, and if it weren’t for job perks and additional funding from grants, she would have a tough time surviving.

Özören has been able to triple her salary because of a career grant from the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBITAK), intended for young researchers setting up their own independent groups, and an EMBO Strategic Development and Integration Grant (SDIG) award, which provides €50,000 per year for as many as 5 years, including a contribution to her salary. “I also have had heavily subsidised university housing for 5 years, and my son goes to the university kindergarten, which is also very cheap.”

Without these benefits, it would have been impossible for her to survive on her meagre wages, as the cost of living in Istanbul is comparable to those of most European cities. Other young researchers who are unable to get as much grant money “oftengo abroad instead,” Özören says.

The problem is compounded by the fact that salary is only one of the many considerations for researchers making a decision about where to work. Job stability and the quality of the research institution are more important from a career perspective, and a better-paid, short-term contract in another country can sometimes be a less attractive option.

“The primary driving force is the quality of research,” says Svoboda. “Scientists can sacrifice a lot for doing outstanding research. Quality, unlike salaries, evolves much slower and can’t be just raised by an administrative decision, because it also requires traditions and the right environment.”

There are also personal factors such as family, and in some cases, these can even lead people to choose to go to–or stay in–a country with lower salaries. Svoboda cites the case of several colleagues with young families who chose not to leave the country or wanted to return home to have their children schooled in a Czech school. Others, such as Vlahovicek, chose to forsake a salary three times higher to return to Croatia for reasons that were partly personal and partly due to the position offered. An added factor was the possibility of rapid career advancement.

Vlahovicek isn’t blind to the salary differential, though, and appreciates that sooner or later it may impact his future decisions–especially if other criteria for doing good science such as freedom of research and institutional support are not met. “I underwent this only because I was confident that I would still be able to perform well scientifically, though I’m still having second thoughts!” he says.

Slow Change

The European Commission acknowledged the disparities across Europe in everything from salaries to benefits with its, published in 2005. That document emphasizes that researchers need to be treated as professionals, including receiving a fair salary and social security–a change seen as essential for improving the attractiveness of research in Europe and creating a knowledge society.

Individual countries are starting to respond to the salary differentials. For example, in Turkey, TÜBITAK have now introduced a progress-based monetary-award system in which researchers are rewarded for submitting progress reports on green-lighted scientific projects every 6 months. In conjunction with several universities, TÜBITAK have also started to give awards for publications in peer-reviewed international journals, with amounts being determined by the number of authors.

Scientists’ salaries are always going to be dependent on a country’s investment in science and the resources it has available. But a simple step that could begin to address the disparities, argues Van Dam, is to advertise positions from Ph.D. fellowships on up and to make the salary information for those positions public. “Advertising all positions would not only increase transparency but also increase competition, which will help everyone,” Van Dam says. “People can see who pays better, and institutes will have to compete at a European level to get the best researchers.”

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