Like in the “ejection seat”: Scientists against time limits

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Gordon Feld studied for six and a half years, then did his PhD, has two degrees and a PhD. Still, he doesn’t have a secure job. Like many scientists, the 38-year-old family man has had to work his way from contract to contract for years. Nevertheless: From his point of view, he still got it relatively well. As a junior research group leader at the Central Institute for Mental Health in Mannheim, Feld received coveted funding.

With that he now feels relatively safe after half a dozen fixed-term contracts, says the psychologist. Its funding will run until the beginning of 2024. But then it will be time to worry again. “The time limits are a strong psychological burden. You have the feeling that you are sitting on an ejector seat,” says Feld, who researches sleep and memory. He is one of many researchers who have been openly showing their anger about the fixed-term system at German universities for days on Twitter.

His six-year-old daughter Sophie would like to stay in Mannheim, he tweeted at the beginning of the week under the hashtag “#IchbinHanna”. “I don’t know if that will work.” Many of those affected, like the psychologist, are in their late thirties and will soon drop out of the system, because the so-called Science Time Contract Act regulates that the time limit usually ends after twelve years – six years after the start and six years after the doctorate.

“It is outrageous to fob off such good people with such bad working conditions,” complains Feld. The debate about short contract terms in science is not new. An explanatory film from 2018 on the so-called law on the website of the Federal Ministry of Research recently broke the barrel. It says that without fluctuation, a generation of scientists would clog up all jobs.

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A contract for doctoral candidates runs an average of 22 months, as soon as the doctorate has been achieved, it is 28 months, according to the current Federal Report on Young Scientists. The left wants to debate the issue in the Bundestag on Thursday. Anyone who has not secured any of the coveted professorships or one of the other permanent positions by the end of the twelve years must find accommodation elsewhere. So-called third-party funding agencies offer a way out, but these are limited in time, depending on the project.

The Union for Education and Science (GEW) sees another problem: Scientists, who have to constantly tremble about an extension of their contracts, may avoid risks in research and conflicts with the mainstream in their specialist discipline. “The mischief of fixed-term contracts inhibits innovations and encourages cautiousness in research,” says GEW board member Andreas Keller.

Many researchers therefore go abroad – looking for permanent positions. “We have great conditions in England, the Netherlands and Scandinavia,” says Feld. The German science system is losing a lot of qualified people. “Why do you invest in their qualifications for years and then not keep them here?” He asks. He too could imagine moving abroad, but he also had to think about the wishes of his family.

Baden-Württemberg’s Research Minister Theresia Bauer (Greens) thinks the law needs to be revised. “Not by converting all positions to permanent positions, but by ensuring that fair periods play a role.” A six-month contract should not be concluded without necessity, although the qualification phase for a doctorate lasts three years. The Federal Ministry of Research has now removed the controversial clip from its website.

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“There was too much in the public debate recently about individual words in the video,” said State Secretary Wolf-Dieter Lukas in a video message. In the debate, the department refers to the universities: “It is the responsibility of the universities and research institutions to ensure an appropriate ratio of fixed-term and open-ended employment contracts. The possibility of fixed-term employment is not an obligation,” said a spokesman. It is planned to evaluate the effects of the law by spring 2022.

The German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), an amalgamation of state and state-recognized universities, believes that time limits are necessary. “The chance of qualification and participation must be guaranteed for every new generation of scientists,” says Peter-André Alt, President of the University Rectors’ Conference. “That would not be possible without temporary qualification positions.”

A first solution to the dispute over chain contracts could be so-called tenure-track professorships: After a limited probation period, a scientist receives a permanent professorship if successful. The federal and state governments launched a corresponding program in 2017. The goal: by 2032, 1,000 such professorships are to be awarded with funding of a maximum of one billion euros.

This is not enough for the GEW: It demands open-ended contracts for everyone in the post-doctoral phase. The psychologist Feld sees it similarly: “To speak of a qualification phase after completing your doctorate is absurd.”


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