Bring in fair pay policies to stop eastern Europe brain drain

Are all its parts really equal? barbiez

Within the European Union there is an East-West gap, in health and innovation. The gap is widening because eastern European member states (such as Poland, Romania, Latvia, Hungary and Slovakia) are winning a tiny proportion of science grants from European central funding.

Scientist salaries and jobs have hit rock-bottom following austerity measures, not only in eastern Europe but also in many southern member states. Scientists are fleeing westward, fleeing out of the EU, or just out of science. Although the main funding body European Commission is now working to help, its current policies on salaries may be causing a brain drain.

As the EC prepares its research and innovation pot of €71bn to be awarded competitively under the “Horizon 2020” programme, it is also preparing additional programs to help struggling regions restructure to be more competitive for that money. However, the most powerful medicine for the recent cocktail of grim circumstances may be a simple principle: Equal pay for equal work.

Eastern Europe has huge scientific potential, but getting there from where we are now will require smart actions at the EC, national government and grassroots levels.

How bad is the situation? With regard to winning a share of central funds, the EC’s own impact assessment of health-related research found that the 12 newest member states participated on only about 6% of projects. Worse, they took home only 2.5% of the total funds collectively. Compare this with the original 15 member states with 78% participation and 85% of funds (the rest of the funds went to participants outside the EU). To put this in context; the original 15 member states had received 34 times more health research funding, a difference that cannot be explained by their 3.8 times larger population nor even their 12.8 times greater contribution to the EU budget. Other areas of science show similar patterns.

So what is in place to help poorer member states under Horizon 2020? Unfortunately, acknowledgement of a crisis and plans to tackle it are largely missing in the standard documentation. You have to call up the right people in the EC and connect the dots.

First, there are the “structural funds”. Although the current €348 billion Europe-wide structural funds went largely unspent or were spent on construction in poorer countries, rather than on research and innovation as the EC recommended, apparently this time round it is different. National governments are serious about utilising available funds and will be forced to spend them on research, its infrastructure and helping small innovation-based businesses. This is good.

Second, there is a new €800M fund called “Spreading Excellence and Widening Participation” which is a package of measures targeted at weaker regions. Teaming of institutions, twinning of research staff, seeding pockets of excellence, exchange of best practices, provision of policy advice and spending money on organisational restructuring are all part of this. This will be good at making much needed cultural changes.

But one key level of analysis has been sorely missing the ratio: 6% participation but 2.5% of funding – why is that?

Having worked on an EU project in Slovenia, I know full well that you cannot live there on an EU project salary. However, if you were to do the same work on the same project, based in London, the project would give you triple the take-home pay.

Here’s how it goes. Every time an international team puts in an EU project proposal, each partner is forced to claim salary at their local pay rate. That means that two colleagues doing equal hours will get unequal pay. The Danish postdoc will get a healthy salary; the Eastern European postdoc will get peanuts. Because her government is relatively broke and pays less.

Any illusion that these salary differences fairly reflect differences in living costs can be dispelled by the EC’s own extensive analysis from 2007, showing very large salary differences remaining across Europe even after controlling for local living costs. That was 2007. The situation is worse now.

The commission is making clear that its new strategy for research and innovation involves forming “an open labour market for researchers” and hiring Europe’s best scientists to address Europe’s social, health, and environmental challenges, producing a substantial return-on-investment for us all. This is a pan-European services model, not a local welfare model. Refusing to allow scientists or research institutions to claim decent rates for their services regardless of where they operate in Europe clashes with this vision. It should be clear why this obsolete policy hampers competitiveness, worsens brain drain and is morally questionable.

The EC is pulling the rug away with one hand while trying to help with the other.