UEF offers employment to grant-funded researchers

“In our estimation, this is the least bureaucratic model we can use to handle the matter”, says rector Tapio Määttä.

The University of Eastern Finland has decided to address the problems pertaining to grant-funded research by offering their grant-funded researchers a ten-percent employment contract. According to Academic Rector Tapio Määttä, if certain conditions set by the university are met, any grant-funded researcher has the subjective right to employment if they desire it. Perhaps the most important criterion is that the length of the grant period must be 12 months at minimum.

“Sentiments of unfairness have especially been related to those working on a long-term grant. Functionally, their position is comparable to an employment relationship and they work long term on a grant, even up to four years, but their status at the university may be uncertain throughout those four years. We want to especially clear up their situation”, Määttä says.

The new policy takes effect across UEF at the start of June, so no practical experiences have been recorded quite yet. Regardless, the upcoming change has been positively received among employee representatives.

“This certainly sounds good. The model means grant-funded researchers can better integrate themselves in the work community, while also becoming eligible for occupational health care”, says Antero Puhakka, university lecturer and Chief Shop Steward of the Negotiation Organisation for Public Sector Professionals (JUKO).

In recent years, the status of grant-funded researchers has been under the microscope in several universities. Grant-funded researchers have often felt unequal to their employed colleagues. For example, they may lack workspaces and access to electronic systems, and the various issues have contributed to a sentiment among researchers that they do not belong in the university community. The situation can be highly variable even within a single faculty.

At UEF, the work to address the issues started with the idea of sorting out the different benefits one by one: workspaces, phones, email, contact information on the university’s website, etc. However, this approach seemed laborious, and arranging occupational health care and insurance for people working as grant-funded researchers would have been extremely difficult or even impossible. If the university were to pay for them, the grant-funded researcher might be seen as a hired employee and the grant would become taxable as a result.

Tapio Määttä began considering part-time employment as a solution but was about to abandon such plans as too bureaucratic. He then heard the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) had already adopted such a model. SYKE Research Director Eeva Primmer offered the SYKE model to Määttä for review, and this model eventually served as the basis at UEF as well.

“In our estimation, this is the least bureaucratic model we can use to handle the matter”, Määttä says.

The SYKE model was originally conceived in 2018, when the institute was moving to significantly smaller premises. As the premise costs per employee were being counted, it was found that grant-funded researchers — then known as visiting scientists — seemed expensive. SYKE briefly considered whether grant-funded researchers would be moved further towards the “visitor” role.

“But it didn’t take long until we realised how important they were to SYKE”, Eeva Primmer explains and adds, “The benefits are the same as with anyone at SYKE: they advance our research, create publications, and present results. Their status was simply worse.”

Since the start of 2020, SYKE has offered their grant-funded researchers a 20-percent employment contract. The idea originated at the Finnish Meteorological Institute. SYKE only employs grant-funded researchers whose work is interlinked with SYKE’s operation. As a result, funding is usually obtained easily through projects. The institute already commits to the employment relationship when the researcher is still searching for a grant. According to Primmer, such proactivity always carries a small risk for the institute, but work has always been available thanks to the sheer number of projects.

“We have not made a survey for our grant-funded researchers yet, but there has been feedback from the managers. At first, they were especially worried about securing the funding, but the grant-funded researchers becoming real members of their teams has been positively received.”

UEF’s new policy was meant to take effect early in the year, but its introduction was moved forward to the summer because of the administrative stressfulness of the new practices and the fact no additional funding is provided to the departments and faculties. This means the first year will not yet stress the units, which were not informed of the policy change until late 2020.

Määttä admits the change has been faced with some concern, especially in the administration of those departments and faculties with many grant-funded researchers. The direct annual costs of a ten-percent employment contract for a single grant-funded researcher have been approximated as 4,000–5,000 euros.

“The department heads and deans definitely agree the status of grant-funded researchers must be improved, but they are worried about the financial implications.” Chief Shop Steward Puhakka also sees money as the biggest question mark regarding the model.

“The implementation depends on the financial situation and especially the willingness of each unit, and these are still completely up in the air”, Puhakka says.

What the ten-percent employment for grant-funded researchers actually entails will also remain unknown until the summer and is agreed upon via a work plan created with the head of the unit. According to Määttä, the contract may not be refused on the grounds that no work is available.

“I believe work will be easy to find because teaching always needs more hands on deck. In addition, starting up research projects requires just the kind of knowhow grant-funded researchers have, especially in the postdoc stage”, Määttä says.

According to Määttä, grant-funded researchers have especially been hoping for teaching opportunities because lessons have been cut back all over Finland in recent years. “This is exactly the model a grant-funded researcher needs to build up their teaching experience. It also helps with the dissertation when you get to teach something related to your own subject.”

On the other hand, Antero Puhakka argues the majority of a grant-funded researcher’s worktime should be invested in research. He opposes the idea of using grant-funded researchers as cheap teaching labour based on the needs of the unit but approves of teaching that benefits the career advancement of each individual.

The University of Eastern Finland reckons there are roughly a hundred grant-funded researchers at UEF per year who meet the employment criteria. However, no accurate registries of grant-funded researchers exist anywhere, so questions still remain about the scope and costs of the model. Regardless, the change is intended to be permanent. Tapio Määttä also suggests that in the future, employment may also be offered to researchers whose grant period is shorter than a year.

“We want to make this an everyday thing and part of our normal operation. Grant-funded researchers are not a superfluous matter to the university,” According to statistics from Mela, the Farmer’s Social Insurance Institution of Finland, there are slightly more than 4,000 scientific grant recipients in Finland each year with a grant period of at least four months. If grant periods shorter than this are also counted, the number climbs up to roughly 4,500 according to Miia Ijäs-Idrobo, Senior Adviser at the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers. FUURT conducts a tremendous amount of research every year.

“Smart universities set up the criteria for their grant-funded workers in a way that entices researchers to take their projects and funding to that university”, Ijäs-Idrobo says. “This is a welcome initiative by the University of Eastern Finland, and everyone in the country will be watching with interest to see how this turns out.”

Text: Tuomo Tamminen
English translation: Marko Saajanaho

Acatiimi 1/2021