Professor i marinbiologi, Åbo Akademi

Professoriblogissa otetaan kantaa yliopistojen ja tutkimuslaitosten ajankohtaisiin asioihin.


Eight more months

When I first came to Finland I was astonished at the number of temporarily filled positions in academia. At first, I was obliged to go along with it myself: my research funding was just too meagre to contemplate making long-term contracts. The wider pattern of academic job insecurity was explained to me as the result of the still recent and very drastic recession of the early 1990s, when the continuity of research funding or any kind of secure employment in the universities could not be guaranteed.

However, 25 years and two (or is it three) recessions later, the situation is basically unchanged. I am still reminded each year around 15 October of the need to 'make employment contracts for next year' for the members of Howylab, and to inform the administration of what funds I have available to support them. This is done against the paradoxical backdrop of an increasingly strict body of employment legislation that considers short-term contracts to be pernicious and exceptional, needing to be carefully justified in each case, especially if the employee has been engaged on similar work for 5 years or longer. 

With clear and justifiable exceptions, such as PhD students expected to graduate on schedule, or research assistants hired on project funding that will expire at a known future time, I don't really see why this practice has persisted. It breeds a general feeling of anxiety and greatly undervalues those affected. The majority who feel, justifiably, that they deserve better are drawn to look for more permanent employment elsewhere, even if less rewarding intellectually. The result is a general loss of motivation, and a brain drain to the private sector or abroad. It affects even the most brilliant of our young scientists, selected for Academy postdoctoral grants or research fellowships, whose funding, though not quite as short-term, is nevertheless strictly temporary, with nothing guaranteed at expiry however much success is achieved. Rolling tenure based on periodic evaluation, internal redeployment and re-skilling remain virtually unknown.

Some of the blame lies in the year-on-year unevenness of funding of higher education and research in Finland, and the fact that the universities, and all their component units, are expected to spend their entire budget each year or see it taken away from them. Thus, there is no cushion against the frequent fluctuations in state funding.

With each successive period of financial retrenchment, whether brought about by global financial turmoil, pandemic or sheer government incompetence, the research sector is treated as non-essential. Its funding can therefore be cut or redeployed drastically, in the hope of being restored later. But the resulting attrition is real. All this is made worse by a scientific career structure (or lack of one) that treats anyone without a permanent contract at age 30 or 35 as a failure, such that they are made to feel grateful for whatever short-term support can be engineered for them. I have seen this happen to so many talented scientists and technical experts, and the longer it persists, the less is the chance that they will ever get a 'proper' job. Such people are somehow assumed to have a private income to put food on the table, and that their salary for the next year is some kind of luxury that they barely deserve.

This is obviously an inefficient, wasteful and inhuman system, and does not bring credit to Finland, falling well short of the dynamic welfare democracy that the country aspires to being. Instead, the number of jobs in academia at all levels needs to be calibrated according to long term financial resources, and a mechanism devised to insulate the entire sector from short-term funding fluctuations that result in such destructive long-term detriments.

Nobody would tolerate the police, fire or defence forces being treated like this. But the university sector is also an essential service for the whole of society, on which its entire future depends. So let's develop a university employment system that retains incentives and opportunity, but which affords proper recognition to those whose skills are indispensible.

To those trapped unfairly in the current system, stay strong with heads held high. A more rational way of nurturing careers in science must emerge eventually, if we all keep fighting for it.

Hannes Lohi 08.02.2021
Fantastic text (again). The system needs to be changed as Howy writes.

Olli Vapalahti 09.02.2021
Couldn't agree more. Beyond that a scientific career should look like an opportunity, not a punishment, research should be seen as an investment, not just a cost. Comparative geography does not position us well.

Sari Karppinen 09.02.2021
Spot on!

I gained my PhD at the age of 40 - in other words no chance of ever really creating a meaningful research-career because I'm simply too old. I wish someone had told me the realities of a career in science before I started!

I was lucky to have a permanent job while in NZ (although only as a lab tech and a tutor - the job market there is pretty bleak as well!), but now back in Finland I am again in a situation where the future is uncertain - current contract ending at the end of March. How on earth do younger generations plan a future and have a family in a system like this, where there's no job security no matter how good you are?!

RF 10.02.2021
It won't change. The employment system is deeply nepotistic and non-transparent. At your university the majority of new contracts are filled without open competition, and even those advertised are tailored to specific candidates. It gets even crazier as some female professors would not even consider applications from male candidates. Good luck with changing that.

Aki Manninen 11.02.2021
Well put Howy! Academic careers need to be better structured. Small improvements have been made but a lot remains to be done and much of this (though not everything) boils down to more predictable basic funding schemes for universities.

Michael Jeltsch 11.02.2021
I wholeheartedly agree with you. I just fear that we all love science too much. Nothing else can explain why we are still keep doing it under the adverse circumstances which do not seem to improve. Unfortunately, I cannot see anywhere the political will to change the situation. Virtually everybody in academia is carrying this latent dissatisfaction, and that's not a good basis to produce cutting-edge science.