iDiv’s early career researchers’ response to the proposed changes to the WissZeitVG
iDiv's researchers1 are concerned about the already precarious working conditions in German academia and are alarmed that the proposed changes to the WissZeitVG will exacerbate this.
The WissZeitVG is a law that specifically determines the contract and working conditions of PhD students and postdocs at German universities and research institutes, ~90% of whom work under temporary contracts for 2-3 years.
These temporary positions create enormous pressure on scientists and compromise the quality of our research. At iDiv, the research addresses big challenges the world faces, such as species extinction, biodiversity loss, and climate change. Understanding these threats to ecosystems, economics, and society requires time and focus. Short-term contracts drastically reduce these and prevent scientists from contributing forward-looking research and solutions to these issues.
The problems of short-term contracts are manifold:
- Interdisciplinary high-quality research and finding a common language that connects specialised researchers from different disciplines requires sufficient time and continuity (also in employment). This is something that especially affects us at iDiv.
- Time pressure to deliver results needed to secure the next job or third-party funding: Excellent research needs time, getting to know colleagues, establishing collaborations, and getting acquainted with local processes. Proposals and job applications need careful preparation, an established team or support from others, and even marketing skills to present yourself and your ideas. Increased time pressure reduces the quality of scientific output and may increase academic misconduct.
- Mental health issues due to increasing pressure, instability, and lack of future perspectives; time loss due to frequent relocation; loss of familiar surroundings and friends and, therefore, more stress, which results in less productivity.
- Risk of starting a family: The postdoc phase typically coincides with the phase of starting a family. The temporary reduction of time devoted to work exposes scientists who want to care for their kids to a higher risk of getting pushed out of science. Because women still often take on a larger share of childcare work than men, so fixed-term contracts discriminate against women more than men.
- Legal instability of foreign researchers: Visas often expire immediately upon contract end. Thus a funding gap of only a month can already cause expulsion, and renewing (or getting a new) visa can take more than six months. This increases pressure and hampers the participation of scientists from the Global South, who most often need a visa even to enter the country.
- Established postdocs often take on important roles as mentors, lecturers, co-supervisors, etc. Losing them can thus disrupt the education of students and doctoral students.
If Germany wants to continue to produce internationally high quality research, and be considered a "research wonderland", it must enable its highly qualified scientists to do what they are good at: Science.
From our point of view, the current WissZeitVG proposal, together with the general political and financial setting for universities and research institutes in Germany, does not lead to more permanent positions and thus not to an improvement of the situation but instead to an aggravation. Accordingly, experienced scholars will have to leave the system even earlier. They will be replaced by less experienced junior researchers, which will be catastrophic for the quality of research and teaching.
Good science needs:
More permanent positions at universities and research institutes. After the doctorate, permanent employment in positions other than professorship should be possible, as in most countries (for example, France and England, see Kreckel 2016), where 70-90% of research positions are permanent. This is currently almost impossible in Germany because of, inter alia, numerous legal, bureaucratic but especially systemic and financial hurdles.
We strongly encourage decision-makers and the BMBF to consider our concerns and commit to changing the law(s) so that more permanent positions arise in order to strengthen Germany as a leading science location with future-oriented top-level research.
1 This refers to all scientists who do not have a permanent position (usually a professorship). Among researchers in Germany under the age of 45 and without a professorship, this is 92%.
- Research in Germany - Two Minutes in a Research Wonderland!
- Reinhard Kreckel, Zur Lage des wissenschaftlichen Nachwuchses an Universitäten: Deutschland im Vergleich mit Frankreich, England, den USA und Österreich, Beiträge zur Hochschulforschung, 38. Jahrgang, 2016 (PDF)
- Markus A. Dahlem, Die Umgehung der Zwölf-Jahres-Regelung, Spektrum Scilogs, 2011
- Bartosz Bartkowski, Warum Entfristung und Finanzierung aus Drittmitteln in der Wissenschaft kein grundsätzlicher Widerspruch sein müssen, 2022
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German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig
Phone: +49 341 9739222