Science Careers Blog

Kate Travis: July 2009

The European Commission has launched a feasibility study of pan-European pension funds for researchers, according to a statement (if a blog entry is considered a statement) from Janez Potočnik, European commissioner for research.

The idea is to make it easier for researchers to contribute to, and ultimately collect, a pension fund no matter what country they are or have previously worked in. Science Careers outlined these problems last year in "A Comfortable Retirement." That article summed up the issues nicely:

Although the European Union (E.U.) has made it possible for scientists to cross borders for work almost seamlessly, scientists can be penalized for that mobility when they retire. At fault is the lack of consistent laws regarding pensions across countries: Some don't allow people who take positions outside of their native countries to pay into the system during years spent abroad, and others even penalize them for leaving by cutting their pension payouts drastically. Even when scientists are allowed to pay into pension schemes in the countries in which they work, keeping track of all of them can be a bureaucratic nightmare. Communication among pension agencies is slow and sometimes nonexistent. A retired scientist might have to collect funds from several countries.

A May 2008 European Commission communication, "Better Careers and More Mobility: European Partnership for Researchers," outlined the potential benefits of a pan-European pension fund:

Pension providers should be encouraged to open up pan-EU pension schemes targeted to researchers and companies should be encouraged to use pension providers in other EU Member States. This would allow mobile researchers to contribute to the same supplementary pension fund while working in different EU countries and still comply with the different social, labour and pension legislation in the participating Member States. This will require the possibility of opting out where researchers are obliged to participate in a domestic pension fund by law.

According to Potočnik, the feasibility study will look at how to best meet the needs of researchers while complementing the established pension schemes in member countries. The original tender for the study listed it as an 11-month contract (which was awarded to Hewitt Associates), so, if the study stays on schedule, expect results next summer.

"For me, the link between the work in this area and securing the sustainability of our future research economy is clear," Potočnik writes. "A more mobile, more professionally secure and confident European research workforce is in everyone's interest. And this is especially important when research careers are more 'mobile' than most and are often based on short-term contracts. We owe it to researchers!"

July 20, 2009

Studying Humans in Space

Forty years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon. But four decades later, how much do we know about how space flight affects the human body?

A new master's degree in human space exploration sciences at the University of Houston (UH) aims to open up the science behind human spaceflight. According to a cleverly timed press release, the new course will cover human physiology in space and how humans may cope with environments on Mars and the moon. It will also teach techniques for building and testing hardware used in space flight, management skills, and the history of the space program.

The course, it says here, is aimed at a variety of people, from students hoping to continue into Ph.D.s in human spaceflight to current space industry workers looking to broaden their knowledge. Course faculty will include NASA's Gary Kitmacher, an expert in astronaut health and habitat; Johnson Space Center's Charles Layne, a human coordination expert; and William Paloski, a UH professor of health and human performance and former NASA researcher in how space flight affects postural stability of astronauts.

Although this may be one of only a handful of degrees devoted to the subject, there are several research groups around the world studying the effects of space flight on the body. Here are some of them:
Space Life Sciences division, Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas
Universities Space Research Association's Division of Space Life Sciences (DSLS), Houston, Texas
National Space Biomedical Research Institute, Houston, Texas
Cleveland Clinic Center for Space Medicine, Cleveland, Ohio
Vanderbilt Center for Space Physiology and Medicine, Nashville, Tennessee
Institute of Aerospace Medicine, Köln, Germany
The Yuri Gagarin Russian State Science Research Cosmonauts Training Centre, Moscow

-Claire Thomas

All this week, Vitae will be publishing new articles daily on research careers and the recession. The first article, written by career adviser Fiona Christie from the University of Salford, has some good general tips: know your sector; know the status of research funding in your country and at your institution; use the careers service at your institution as a resource; and know yourself, your skills, and your limitations. Read the entire article here, and watch this page for new articles throughout the week.

Elizabeth Wilkinson at the University of Manchester has also put together a series of recession-related articles and discussions here. Wilkinson (who recently spoke to us for an article on social networking) also maintains the Manchester Postgraduate Careers Blog.

For a few recession-related Science Careers articles, see Tooling Up: The Cold, Hard Truth About Finding a Job in 2009; In Person: Finding Opportunities in a Dysfunctional Job Market; and Financial Crisis Reshaping the Life Sciences Industry.

July 10, 2009

On Inspiration

This week's Darwin Festival is drawing to a close in Cambridge. It's been an amazing week of lectures, discussions, plays, and performances all to celebrate Charles Darwin on his 200th birthday.

All of us at Science Careers tend to ask people what or who inspired them to go into science. Some people cite Darwin as their inspiration; they are more likely to say that his life's work is inspirational. There's another name that comes up frequently, particularly here in the U.K.: David Attenborough.

Also Cambridge-educated (he studied geology and zoology at Clare College), Attenborough is best known as a television presenter. Off and on for 50 years, he's written and presented countless programs about the natural world -- among his most famous are Life on Earth (and the entire "Life" series), The First Eden, and Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives. Earlier this year he hosted a show called Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life. His excitement and fascination with the natural world shows through in his programs, and he's brought the the natural world to the TV screens of generations of viewers, young and old.

Now 83 years old, Attenborough was the special guest at a sold-out dinner last night at King's College, Cambridge. "Above all, Darwin demonstrated ... that we are members of the natural world, that we're not separate from the natural world, that we're subject to its laws. And if we deny that, we deny our responsibility to ... the future. Charles Darwin is indeed the man who put that in our minds, and for him we should all be grateful."

Why hold the Darwin Festival in Cambridge? Long before the HMS Beagle voyage, settling in Down House, or writing The Origin of Species, Darwin was an undergraduate theology student at Christ's College, Cambridge. Here he developed a love for the natural world, and studied under botany professor John Henslow. He collected beetles on the banks of the River Cam, a hobby he would continue for much of the rest of his life.

The festival has been a testament to the reach of his work: nobel laureates Paul Nurse and Harold Varmus spoke here this week; Lords Martin Rees and Robert May, current and former president, respectively, of the Royal Society, made appearances as well; as did evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. But the festival isn't just for scientists: Authors Terry Pratchett and Ian McEwan, among others, were here to discuss Darwin's influence on literature. At dinner last night I sat next to a lecturer in literature at a U.K. university who has written a book about Darwin in poetry that will be published this autumn. Darwin certainly influenced a wide variety of careers, both in science and out.

July 1, 2009

On Passion

I'm at the World Conference of Science Journalists in London this week. There are 900 journalists from all over the world here -- more than 70 countries, I heard. If you travel to science conferences, that's probably not impressive. But journalists tend to travel in packs -- by subject material (neuroscience, physics, geoscience, etc.) or by geography. It's rare to have this many folks together for the purpose of considering our profession.

There's not just journalists here, though. I had a conversation earlier today with a postdoc from the University of Dundee. Using Roberts money, the university provides funds to postdocs to travel to conferences outside their field to promote alternative careers. Cool, huh? She's here to check out science writing. I hope she doesn't go away thinking there's always this much free beer. (Seriously, though, if you're interested in science writing, check out our series of articles on the topic.)

One reason she's looking into science writing: She's not sure she's passionate about her research, and that passion is a huge key to success.

I just attended the announcement of the Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research, given by Johnson and Johnson. This year's winner: Axel Ullrich, Ph.D., director of the Department of Molecular Biology at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Germany. Translational research in his lab led to the development of the cancer drug Herceptin and genetically engineered human insulin. Here's what he had to say when I asked him what he tells postdocs that go through his lab:

"Look for what you really want to do. If you're not excited and passionate about solving a problem, then you will never succeed. If you design your career by rational parameters, ... you will never succeed. You have to be passionate about what you do. ... Don't say, 'there are so many competitors.' Don't worry about that. Go straight to the problem. This is what I did -- I had this built-in compass, and [with it] I never had any hesitation starting even the most difficult project."

Top advice, I'd say, whether you're in science or not.