Solving the tax conundrum
Heidelberg, 04 April 2017 – In 1981, Gerrit van Meer, a newly fledged Dutch PhD student, arrived at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg to start a postdoc with Kai Simons. His funding came from a familiar source: an EMBO Long-Term Fellowship. As he says, “there were not many alternatives in those days. The fellowship gave me the status of independence, just as it does to today’s fellows.” Gerrit’s postdoctoral period turned out to be successful: “I got a paper out after one year, and stayed on for, in the end, another four years,” he recalls. “In those five years, I produced a series of papers that established me as an independent scientist and supported me for the rest of my scientific career.”
Today, as President of the European Molecular Biology Conference (EMBC), the body that funds all of EMBO’s Programmes and activities, Gerrit still has the EMBO Long-Term Fellowship at the front of his mind. Set up in the 1960s as a way of sending young European postdocs to the best labs across national borders, the fellowships have contributed to the training of thousands of scientists, many of whom gone on to become some of the world’s most influential researchers. Offering a two-year tax-free stipend, EMBO Fellowships were an invaluable stepping stone to an independent scientific career, at a time when the average postdoctoral period lasted somewhere between two and five years.
“Postdocs are worried”
But times have changed from those early days. The boom in biomedical science and molecular biology has resulted in many more postdocs being trained than can rapidly achieve academic independence, leading to a situation where postdoc jobs are less of a short training period, and more a way of life, sometimes lasting up to a decade. David del Álamo Rodríguez, EMBO Fellowship Programme Manager, sums up the problem: “Postdocs are now worried – they may have a couple of kids and they’re married, and it’s not fair they have to live on a stipend,” he says. “They need stability.”
EMBO Fellowships have evolved to meet this challenge. Bolted on to the modern stipend are benefits such as allowances for children, child care and travel, as well as parental leave, the option for working part time, and a private pension scheme. Fellows become part of a community, and the scientific contacts they make can lay a solid foundation for the rest of their careers. EMBO Fellowships are still coveted and highly competitive, with only 11 to 16% of applicants in the past five years passing the rigorous selection procedure, which includes an interview with an EMBO Member.
However, all is not perfect. It is becoming increasingly harder to ensure a level playing field for all EMBO Fellows, due to changes in employment and tax law in many countries. Maria Leptin, EMBO Director, outlines the problem: “An increasing number of national governments no longer accept non-taxable fellowships and insist on full social security payments,” she says. “This has led to situations where the fellows either suffer unacceptable net reductions in their fellowship, or else the host institute or research group has to supplement the fellowship – in some cases with a supplement that almost matches the fellowship itself. Not all research groups and institutes can afford this, and some therefore cannot host EMBO Fellows.”
Such considerations have led to a re-evaluation of the programme, to ensure that EMBO’s support of early-career researchers continues to be an important part of the European research landscape. Today, many other programmes fund postdoctoral fellowships – a conservative estimate indicates there are some 120 other schemes for molecular life sciences alone – many of which pay for national taxation and social security entitlements. So what can EMBO do?
Exploring the options
One possibility to continue to provide funding for postdoctoral researchers across Europe is a switch from paying stipends to negotiating contracts for EMBO Fellows with host institutions. This would not only ensure that fellows in every country have a comparable net income, and receive the benefits they’re entitled to, but it also opens the door to securing extra funding for the EMBO Fellowship Programme: the European Commission Marie Skłodowska-Curie COFUND scheme will not co-fund stipend-based programmes. Gerrit van Meer thinks that adopting contracts would give EMBO Fellowships the boost they need: “A raise in social benefits would increase the status of the fellowships and increase the visibility of EMBO as it wants to be perceived: top of the bill!”
There are other possible changes to consider, such as the duration of the fellowship, as Gerrit acknowledges: “Two years is a short time, because it means you must start looking for a new position after one year. This hardly gives you time to make enough progress to prove that your postdoc is running successfully.” The pilot EMBO Advanced Fellowships, where existing fellows in European labs have the chance to apply for a further two years’ money, have, so far, been a success, suggesting a potential way forward.
Committed to transnational science
EMBO remains committed to helping the best early career researchers do transnational science, something of particular importance in the current political climate. Gerrit van Meer is clear on this: “Science is an international activity,” he says. “Let’s try to keep it that way.” And Paul Nurse, EMBO Secretary General, could not agree more: “Long-Term Fellowships have been at the heart of EMBO’s mission to foster transnational science since EMBO began in the 1960s. The scheme has evolved over the years and we need to continue to be adaptable and receptive to new ideas that will keep it relevant and attractive to the best young researchers. The EMBO community as a whole will help in maintaining this highly successful and effective fellowship scheme.”
David del Álamo Rodríguez
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