Social and spatial processes determining the development of the European scientific labour market
(Theme 2: Human Resources/Labour Market issues in European S&T;)

Louise Curran
Prof. J. Lovering


The aim of this preliminary qualitative research project was to identify emergent trends within the scientific labour market which might deserve closer attention in future science policy research. The study examined perceptions of the changing supply and demand for scientists and technologists on the part of employers of a wide variety of types of scientific labour in France, Germany and Britain. It focused on evidence of changes in the institutional and social structure of the scientific workforce, and the geographical distribution of scientific employment.

Main Results

A number of themes are common to the three countries, but there are also significant national variations. In all cases, recruitment to scientific employment tends to be highly institutionalised, involving close links between employers and higher education institutions. But in Britain the institutional separation of pure and applied science (or between curiosity-driven and application-driven work) is less clear, as are the routes through which subsequent career paths can be built. British researchers are also less well paid, and are more likely to have been attracted by the intrinsic appeal of scientific work.

Restrictions in government spending and an insistence on 'relevance' in scientific work are common to all three countries. Only in Britain are they associated with a major restructuring of the scientific labour market. While there are growing pressures to modify key parameters of the science labour market (such as pay gradings) in France and Germany, scientists in general continue to enjoy high status and rewards, linked to a highly regulated structure of qualification and employment. In the UK, the scientific labour market is being substantially deregulated, especially as an effect of the growth of competition between universities and contract research organisations and increased recruitment to short-term contract-driven work.

Emergent tensions in the scientific labour market: The nature of the 'task agenda' which scientists are required to perform is changing, and employers are looking to non- scientific skills accordingly. These include 'flexibility' , a 'commercial orientation', and the ability to interact with research customers. Employers report a number of tensions arising as a result:

  • the possession of these qualities is hard to assess, and this creates a subjective element in selection

  • there is a danger of 'burn-out' as researchers moving from one short-term project to another are unable to accumulate intellectual capital

  • the reduction in the intrinsic intellectual attractions of scientific work is raising the importance of remuneration and career-development prospects as instruments to attract and retain staff. But the current restructuring of universities and of other research establishments is not conducive to efforts to address these

As a result, some argue that the ability of British scientific employers to secure the necessary skilled labour is becoming increasingly tenuous. Major problems may emerge once again as alternate employment opportunities for young qualified scientists became attractive when the recession passes.

Geographical dimensions: Scientific employment takes place within a relatively small number of locations. Elsewhere in Europe powerful influences are at work to extend and supplement the existing locations, as a result of explicit central policy (France), or of the interaction between a plurality of powerful actors (Germany). Neither influence is present in the UK, where the geography of scientific work is an unintended outcome of the combination of limited national S& T investment and de facto labour market deregulation. The tendency would appear to be toward centralisation/retrenchment within existing locations. This may have questionable implications both for the balance of future scientific labour supply and demand, and for regional development.

Meanwhile the development of an integrated European scientific labour market is severely limited by disparities between the regulated labour market in France and Germany and de facto deregulation in Britain. To the extent that the restructuring of scientific employment in Britain is perceived in resulting in lower skill levels and rewards, British participation in the internationalisation of the science labour market is likely to be limited to a small elite.

Implications for Policy and Practice

These trends suggest that British science in the late 1990s may face special problems in addition to those shared by European neighbours. At the most fundamental level, a key policy question is the efficacy of current attempts in Britain to blur the institutional boundaries between curiosity-driven and market-driven research.

In terms of policy for scientific labour, a number of developments currently underway deserve attention:

  • the development of career structures for young scientists (lessons may be learned from best practice in UK private industry as well as public sector examples in other EU countries, and CEC programmes)

  • measures to create 'buffer stocks' of the scientifically skilled in preparation for a future upturn in demand (lessons may be learned from current German experience/experiments)

  • measures to link the geographical distribution of scientists to wider local/regional economic goals (again, lessons may be learned from diverse experiments in regional high-technology development in Europe, and thinking in some UK regions.

References/further reading

Louise Curran and John Lovering forthcoming 'Tendencies and tensions in the development of the European scientific labour market' Project Working Paper.

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