Solving researcher precarity – Career paths and fair funding

Precarious conditions are not just a professional concern – they also harm scientific excellence, according to Mathew Tata, who suggests that HEIs that cannot recruit researchers on decent conditions should not hire at all.

Mathew Tata
This is a discussion article. The opinions expressed are the writer’s own.

The risks associated with conducting frontier research are understood by all scientists, but contrived or under-funded career paths are more difficult to accept. It was, therefore, rewarding to read Marie­Louise Samuelsson’s article and interview of Karin Åmossa in Universitetsläraren (online, May 6), as she expertly picked apart the role played by public research funding in generating precarious conditions for researchers in Sweden. The duty for research careers has been deferred for too long, and stakeholders need to take responsibility.

As Karin Åmossa says, a “costly detour” of national funding via research councils causes uncertainty for researchers. Much like the sun’s rays, national expenditure is what allows the public research sector to flourish. Yet, in the academic rainforest, those rays are disproportionally captured by the tallest trees – something that competitive funding propagates. Meritocracy whilst awarding funding is not guaranteed: the “Matthew effect” (where resources flow to those who already have them) is a perennial bias, and financing higher education institutions (HEIs) through competitive funding often benefits established scientists preferentially, as well as making fixed-term employment an eventuality.

The ministry needs to recognise the consequences of their national strategy but despite the drafting of a new Research Bill, I agree that little substantive actions exist behind the government’s rhetoric.

Whilst change is needed at state-level, public research expenditure in Sweden is pretty favourable towards institutions compared to other nations. Karin Åmossa is right in holding HEIs accountable for worsening academic precarity through “strategic investments”, and especially in their recruitment policies. For example, the ‘HR Excellence in Research Award’ from the European Commission has been received by several Swedish HEIs for implementing the principles of the ‘Charter and Code for Researchers’. Yet, as shown by Universitetsläraren, these HEIs hire researchers on stipends, contravening the core principle of “Recognition of the profession”.

This de-professionalisation, partially used for tax avoidance, drives uncertainty to new levels, where researchers cannot even access basic state welfare provisions. I would suggest that if you can’t recruit a researcher on conditions expected by any other citizen, you don’t have the capacity to hire at all.

Precarious conditions are not just a professional concern, they also harm scientific excellence. With one eye on their futures, researchers commit both time and attention to navigating the winding academic career path, which ultimately limits what they can do at work. HEIs often revere the autonomy given to their scientists but need to recognize that researchers will struggle to exercise this creative freedom properly when faced by vague career prospects (and high overhead costs).

As a member of the Swedish Network of Postdoc Associations (SNPA), I and other postdocs openly welcome Åmossa’s work, and hope it puts research careers firmly on the policy agenda. Establishing the right approach will be complex, and involve issues like employment legislation, research assessment and Open Science.

But as more scientists finish their doctorates and start looking for a job, Sweden needs an academic career framework underpinned by a sustainable funding system and a national commitment from institutions and stakeholders. Don’t delay.

Mathew Tata
Postdoc and former chair of SNPA

Mathew Tata

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