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The Scientists‘ Crisis

The Scientists‘ Crisis - Dr. Andreas Bergmann

Becoming a scientist was and is one of the dreams of many intelligent and creative minds of our times and the past. Such a goal is associated with many hardships. A-Level, entrance test and studies are only the beginning of the path to become a scientist. Many fail and do not even obtain a Bachelor’s and / or Master’s degree. But once this hurdle is overcome, the course does not end, but start.  

In almost every country in the world, doctoral theses are written at universities and research institutions at this point [1]. 

Basic scientific skills should be learned and checked. Hypotheses are repeatedly checked by oneself and colleagues and are discarded and re-stated; if necessary. Papers are written, lectures are prepared, meetings are organized and conferences are attended. Research results are presented and defended in front of international and expert committees [2]. 

All of these are in order to gain and proof core competencies of a scientist during this time. This takes a lot of (personal) time and compassion [3]. 

Private plans like starting a family, are being postponed. But this too, is what budding scientists initially to accept. Everything is devoted in the service of the search for truth – ‘Science’ [4].

At least that’s the romantically transfigured perception.

At the moment, however, the work situation of scientists around the world and especially in the USA and Europe looks a bit soberer.

For several years or decades, it has been the part of scientists‘ everyday life that they are employed on so-called fixed-term contracts [3], which has also alarmed the trade unions, already [5]–[7].

Piece by piece, the state withdrew itself from financing the research salaries and left it to the scientific faculties to support these salaries through so-called second and third-party funds / soft-money, i.e. through semi-public or private organizations. Nowadays, more and more working groups and institutes are financed by such third-party funds [8]. 

If there is enough public interest in scientific topics of working groups, it is certainly not a problem to find financiers. However, it becomes problematic, when financing research outside of this current public interest (see the Corona crisis) or research that is not followed by timely economic interest.

Scientists are actually constantly confronted with the need to orient their research on short-term and to current events in order not to become unemployed, soon. This has consequences not only for the individual researcher and his/her research, but also for the quality of ongoing research in general.

Earlier generations of scientists were able to conduct research over several years or even decades, but today the mantra is to complete projects within a year or less.

Again and again, new research applications for short-term projects are written and mostly rejected [3]. This consumes the time and effort that the actual research lacks, unfortunately.

But that’s not the worst part of the situation. The current system with third-party funding primarily promotes one thing – the competition among scientists for financial resources. In the private sector one would say that competition stimulates business. But is this also the right way to go in science? Universities are “institutions on the way to truth”. This assumes that a scientist speaks openly and honestly about results with others. Science thrives on discourse and open communication. Just like in the private sector, however, this open communication is stifled by competition for funding [9]. 

Nowadays scientists often rethink about exchanging new ideas for experiments with colleagues, when these colleagues are doing research in a similar field. Confidentiality about future research applications takes over cooperation with other working groups. Even worse is expected. Understandable, but does it make sense, scientifically?

Certainly, there will always be competition among scientists, but this must not be structurally supported. Science must be independent of financial hardships and fears.

So why should scientists continue to work in precarious conditions? Certainly, some scientists will always manage to maintain their positions in the actual system. There are also always vacancies, but only if scientists get used to changing their place of residence and working groups on a regular basis.

Ultimately, this means that there is basically enough money available for a stable number of jobs in science. So, what is the problem of offering scientists permanent positions, where they would be employed on a permanent basis if there is money and interest in research topics? Open-ended employment contracts could be linked to conditions that each faculty or university independently draws up. For example, an employment contract could require a minimum number of publications or presentations at conferences.

That would be easy to check and also more efficient, since the scientist would invest more time in experiments and writing publications, rather than in writing applications for funding/ grant proposals.

Unfortunately, as a result of all these developments, more and more scientists are turning their backs on research in order to find more secure jobs and life. This must end if society has true interest in science, research and innovation towards human wellbeing.

[1] S. Arrese Murguzur, „How do PhDs in different countries differ?“, Instituto Internacional de Sociología Jurídica de Oñati, Mai 04, 2017. http://www.iisj.net/en/socio-legal-master/doctoral-studies/how-do-phds-different-countries-differ (zugegriffen Apr. 06, 2021).

[2] E. Pain, „How to write your Ph.D. thesis“, Science | AAAS, Apr. 30, 2018. https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2018/04/how-write-your-phd-thesis (zugegriffen Apr. 06, 2021).

[3] H. Minssen, „Einsatz aus Leidenschaft“, Apr. 06, 2021. https://www.forschung-und-lehre.de/karriere/einsatz-aus-leidenschaft-169/ (zugegriffen Apr. 06, 2021).

[4] F. Rost, „Was ist Wissenschaft? – Was ist wissenschaftliches Arbeiten?“, in Lern- und Arbeitstechniken für das Studium, F. Rost, Hrsg. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2010, S. 25–38.

[5] Gewerkschaft für Erziehung und Wissenschaft, „Templiner Manifest – Text“, GEW – Die Bildungsgewerkschaft, Apr. 27, 2015. https://www.gew.de/wissenschaft/templiner-manifest/templiner-manifest-text/ (zugegriffen Apr. 06, 2021).

[6] Gewerkschaft für Erziehung und Wissenschaft, „Herrschinger Kodex“, GEW – Die Bildungsgewerkschaft, Apr. 27, 2015. https://www.gew.de/wissenschaft/herrschinger-kodex/ (zugegriffen Apr. 06, 2021).

[7] Gewerkschaft für Erziehung und Wissenschaft, „Köpenicker Appell“, GEW – Die Bildungsgewerkschaft, Aug. 20, 2015. https://www.gew.de/Koepenicker_Appell.html (zugegriffen Apr. 06, 2021).

[8] Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft e.V., „Allgemeine Entwicklung der Drittmittel“, Juli 26, 2017. https://web.archive.org/web/20170726160855/http://www.laendercheck-wissenschaft.de/drittmittel/drittmittel_allgemein/index.html (zugegriffen Apr. 06, 2021).[9] Lesch, Harald Lesch: Grundeinkommen schafft Sicherheit | Fragerunde 4/7 • Die Menschheit schafft sich ab. 2017.

Bio:-

Dr. Andreas Bergmann is an experienced biotechnologist and expert in chromatography and mass spectrometry, who worked as a postdoc at scientific institutes in Germany, Iceland and Finland before becoming a passioned Highschool teacher.

He wrote his doctoral thesis in the renowned working group led by Prof. Jochen Schubert at the University of Rostock and graduated with “summa cum laude”. Working on national and international projects, he was involved in the development of non-invasive methods for future diagnostic procedures.

His research results were presented in Europe and the USA, including the PittCon (Chicago), the IABR (Vienna) and the Nordic Metabolomics Conference in Sweden.

His motivation: Passion for science and empathy in education.

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