Researchers are people, too: How Centers of Excellence influence hiring policies

In Norway, about 10% of full-time employees in the general work force have temporary positions; at universities, it’s over twice that level. How has this happened? Is it a problem? Why?

External funding has become more important for research universities and perhaps the increase in temporary staff is related to that. In Norway, the Centers of Excellence are particularly visible examples of long-term but finite funding that leads to temporary hirings.

Which of those hirings are unproblematic and which should be changed? In Norway, for example, even PhD candidates count as employees — and no one wants to be a permanent PhD candidate! They are temporary and that’s how it should be. But an early career scientist who has finished both a PhD and a post doc, too, might get hired onto a project as a “researcher” and about 80% of the people in that category are temporary. Perhaps this is a case where we need to ask if we’re treating people professionally.

The Norwegian government dictates that permanent contracts should be the norm, also at universities. Their motivations for this include noble goals such as security and predictability for the employee, enhancing recruitment to academia, and strengthened academic freedom.

So how should we deal with externally financed projects that last for many years, like the 10-year Center of Excellence grants? To accomplish the goals set by the centers, much of their money will be used to hire new colleagues even though universities don’t have permanent academic jobs for them. What happens to a researcher when the 10 years are over?

Hiring strategies with long term researchers raise important questions about justice in the workplace. What is the right way for a university to treat its employees? How long is it reasonable to keep researchers on temporary contracts? In Norway, oversimplifying somewhat, employees who have had temporary positions for four years or more have special rights that can facilitate permanency; in some cases, they can lay claim to an advertised position.

But even the four years one spends as a PhD candidate counts in this equation. A PhD candidate who is kept on to be a replacement faculty member for a year all of a sudden gets to jump to the head of the queue when a permanent position is announced. Is that the path a research group should follow towards excellence? How can we balance an institution’s wish to treat its employees well with its wish to advertise a new permanent position internationally and pursue the best possible candidate, even if that person isn’t homegrown?

From my perspective, the debate here is not on track; the system is being gamed. Because time as a PhD candidate counts towards getting special rights, department chairs don’t keep them on in short term positions, since this will push them over the four year threshold. Temporary hirings therefore may happen based on who has the fewest rights, not who is best for the job. This is a direct consequence of the rules we have.

Another way the system is gamed is through changing the definition of “permanent.” Some propose that researchers be given permanent contracts and then subsequently fired if they don’t secure sufficient external funds to pay their own salaries. It’s true that the label “permanent” would in that case give them a couple of more rights, e.g. the right to special consideration for a relevant job at some other Norwegian institution. But, nonetheless, one could understand if this arrangement were described as a permanent job with no salary — at least not unless you find it yourself. And somehow that just doesn’t seem to me to be what the word “permanent” means.

We need to re-boot this discussion; universities, the government and the unions need to work together with less concern about their traditional turf. The solution has to start with a clear conception of the mission of universities, namely the pursuit of excellence in teaching and research. We need to understand the role of PhD candidates, post docs and researchers in that context. Centers of Excellence offer an important opportunity to weigh the issues.

While it’s unethical to view PhDs and post docs as merely cheap and discardable labor sources, it’s also true that advancing in a scientific career requires mobility and sometimes even our brightest progeny need to be nudged down the road. Part of our job in university leadership is to articulate why mobility is important, and to facilitate mobility, not least of all mobility between sectors, e.g. in and out of universities, research institutes, and companies.

Highly successful research universities in the United States have a de facto ban on hiring their own graduates, at least until you’ve been somewhere else for quite a while.

We don’t have to blindly follow the U.S., but we do need a new European model; a model that gives flexibility to institutions, a model that let’s us keep our eye on the goal of being the best we can be — both individually and institutionally. We need a European model for institutional excellence, but one that treats researchers as people, too.

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Source for facts: Rapport om bruk av midlertidig tilsetting i universitets- og høgskole sektoren

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more



  • Hege Tunstad says:

    I don’t see how the funding of Centres of Excellence can act as proxy for the entire temp-problem. These centres use the ten-year-funding to answer scientific questions that take more than a PhD to answer, but still use regular PhD and post.doc positions to answer these questions or as great a part as their contract allows. Hardly ever is a person hired for the duration of the Centres funding. At lest I have never heard of this happening at NTNU, and we’ve had three centres for ten years now. There are many advantages to the ten-year-funding scjeme, and probably many drawbacks too, but the hiring policy is hardly affected.

    • Curt Rice says:

      Hi Hege, and thanks for sharing your thoughts here. At the general level, my idea was that the CoEs trigger some discussion of the temporary-employee problems, because they create the conditions for lots of temporary jobs. At a slightly more specific level, there are at least three cases that I think require our attention:
      — The first is when a research is hired for a large part of the 10-year period. I agree with you that this is rare, but I think center I was part of, there is one person in this situation.
      — Much more common will be the case where someone gets a PhD and then a post-doc. Maybe the PhD was part of the Center, or maybe it was independently funded by another project or by the university directly. But nonetheless, if the person goes directly into a post-doc, the issue of earned permanency comes up. Not everyone agrees on the interpretation of the law here, but moving directly from a PhD position to a postdoc position has by some been interpreted as leading to what we call “sterk stillingsvern.” And whether the courts ultimately agree with that or not, the issue is at least raised by employment at the center, which is my general point. (Of course, the centers are far from the only problematic situation; I’m just saying that they’re part of it.)
      — Finally, many of the centers “buy out” researchers from teaching duties, and that creates in some cases a temporary replacement position (vikariat). Some of these replacement folks are around for much of the life of the center.
      In my own center environment in Tromsø, there have been two vikar positions which have lasted nearly the entire duration of the center. One of those has been staffed with the same person the whole time. And this again raises the temporary employment issue.
      So, those are the kinds of cases I had in mind when thinking about this issue.
      Thanks again for your comment!

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