Young Spanish Researchers Fight for Their Rights


Three thousand young researchers from all over Spain took to the streets of Madrid on 25 October last year. They were joined by opposition-party politicians and representatives of the leader of the Spanish Syndicates (trades unions). Their purpose: to demand that the Spanish government honour its commitment to give fellowship holders–PhD students and postdocs–the social-security rights afforded to other workers in Spain.

That the young researchers were able to rally such support to their cause is thanks to the Federación de Jóvenes Investigadores (the Spanish Young Researchers’ Federation, FJI). Created 3 years ago by bringing together existing young researchers’ associations from all over Spain, FJI aims to tackle the problems faced by young scientists in pursuing a research career, such as the instability of their working conditions and the lack of recognition of their professional value (see Spanish Science Haemorrhages Talent). The organisation is run entirely by volunteers and funded through the small annual subscription that members pay to their local associations.

FJI’s primary goal is to see predocs and postdocs employed not on fellowships, as at present, but on proper contracts, which would include social-security rights. As fellowship holders, the researchers are regarded as students. But as FJI’s Productivity Report ( Estudio bibliométrico de la producción científica del Personal Investigador en Formación y Perfeccionamiento en España [in Spanish]) shows, these “students” are responsible for a substantial proportion of Spain’s publication output. According to the report, 90% of the authors of papers published by Spanish groups in 1999 and 2000 were paid with fellowships, and fully 48% of first authors in those years were in this precarious situation.

FJI fights its battle on many fronts. For example, we prepare extensive reports looking at different aspects of the Spanish research scene, we maintain good contact with the media so that we can share our findings with them, and we organise meetings with the public institutions responsible for science policy in Spain.

On 22 May 2002, Anna Birulés, the Science and Technology Minister, announced in the Senate that the document would soon be ready. But, although it would entitle fellowship holders to maternity leave, health coverage, retirement coverage at the age of 65, and insurance for accidents in the workplace, it would not include social coverage in the case of unemployment. Despite the continuing lack of this vital piece of social security, this information was, nonetheless, considered by FJI as a positive piece of news.

However, in mid-July, Birulés was replaced as minister by Josep Piqué, delaying completion of the statute. Despite asking the new minister and his team repeatedly about its status, FJI did not receive a clear reply. And so the young researchers decided to put pressure on the minister with their October demonstration.

The 3000 demonstrators’ main demand was to discover what had happened to the statute promised by the Science and Technology Ministry. We marched through Madrid to the ministry, where we asked to enter and meet Pedro Morenés, the Scientific Policy and Research State Secretary. Unfortunately, Morenés was away from Madrid, but Gonzalo León, the Scientific Policy and Research General Secretary, agreed to see FJI’s then-president, Carlos Penya, and me. León patiently listened to our demands and promised to meet us in November to talk more extensively about these questions in the presence of Morenés.

This meeting finally took place on 11 December. Three members of FJI met with Morenés, León, and Fernando Valdivieso, the Research General Secretary. Disappointingly, we were unable to obtain any information about the status of the statute or its likely date of publication. More positively, though, Morenés said during the meeting that he would do anything within his power to implement the statute, in collaboration with the other ministries involved in its approval.

Is this just one more empty promise? FJI will continue to push the ministry to keep its word. We have asked Piqué himself for a meeting but, although he responds politely, he seems reluctant to talk to young scientists directly. We have tried talking to the other ministries involved with the statute but, according to them, they cannot tell us anything that the science ministry has not. And, although we have asked to participate in the work group that is producing this elusive document, we have not yet seen a draft copy.

Unfortunately, we have not been able to get much support in our fight from Spain’s senior scientists, who have other priorities–a larger R&D budget for example. Maybe in the end what it all comes down to is money. This is certainly what the science ministry would have us believe, although, in general, this government seems reluctant to improve the social-security conditions of any of the country’s insecure workers. So, as well as talking to the Partido Popular (the government party), because Spain’s government is itself in something of a precarious position at the moment, we are also talking to the main opposition party, in case it should come to power some time soon.

Whatever happens, we won’t give up. A promise is a promise, and we’ll keep reminding our policy-makers of that.

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