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How much does society lose due to job insecurity in the academic sector?

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Job insecurity in academia is bad for researchers, for their disciplines and for society which pays them. These are conclusions from recent „Career Tracking of Doctorate Holders Pilot Project Report”.

According to the pilot project conducted on almost 500 early career researchers, academics with permanent job contracts are:

  • Twice as likely to produce patents
  • Nearly three times as likely to claim that they had a significant impact on policy or practice
  • More likely to have been awarded an academic prize
  • Nearly twice as likely to have undertaken public engagement activities

This is not the result of a difference in experience between the groups, since the same trends are also visible among researchers with the same level of experience. What is more, researchers with temporary contracts attend more conferences and publish papers as often as those with permanent positions, thus the differences between the groups are probably not the result of differences in academic proficiency (unfortunately the Report does not include information about individual citation scores). They are rather the result of different strategies chosen by individuals, which are the result of various working conditions.

As Siobhan Phillips and Rhona Heywood-Roos, two of the people behind the Report  wrote on LSE blog:

Taken together, these findings suggest that those on temporary contracts are behaving rationally in response to the incentives of the academic job market. As such, they are more focused on individual achievements and the kinds of outcomes that are recognised and rewarded by the system (publications) in the form of employment security.

This is obvious for those familiar with the sociology of employment. This trend occurs in society as a whole. In the time of flexibility, individual resumes or portfolios are seen as the only guarantee of security. And this is also something that you can read about following the postdocalypse hashtag, where you can find stories of thousands of Early Career Researchers from all over the world.

People working in academia (and not only) under temporary contracts spend their free time writing new grant proposals, looking for job offers, correcting and adjusting their resume, and sending e-mails to potential co-workers. They also have to publish more and present more at conferences, and they have to publish quickly and in well-known venues. The recent infamous retraction from Science triggered a discussion on whether the pressure on early career researchers increases the risk of academic fraud. But even if not, it surely diminishes engagement in any long-term projects that are not likely to result in a high profile publication within a year.

At a time of precarious employment in academia, only researchers with permanent contracts can really focus their knowledge and authority on engaging in political, societal or neighborhood activities. They can read books and articles about the challenges that humanity faces behind their field of academic expertise. Finally, they can work on own projects that do not require external funding, but which might also become full-time academic ventures one day. Those with temporary contracts have less freedom, less time and less motivation to work for public good. They have to focus on their own careers.

The question is how much good science does society lose. How many new patents would be registered if more scientists could be hired on permanent contracts? How many new medicines would be discovered? But also how many groundbreaking philosophical concepts would emerge and how many fresh critical analyses of art written? Since our society, which is overcoming economic and political crisis, needs not only new discoveries but also new ideas.

Image: Public domain, author unknown.

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