Early career scientists: time for a Labor Union? AIRIcerca and the Italian case


Is being a scientist a real job? If you have a tenure track position the answer is certainly “yes.” Otherwise, welcome to the dark side of early career scientists.

They make up the majority of the workforce in research, they are the ones who actually design experiments and produce scientific data and they invest the best years of their lives trying to find new ideas and create new opportunities for science. Without them, the job of many other fully recognized employees (such as lab technicians, research administrative staff and principal investigators themselves) would make little or no sense.

Nonetheless in most of cases (though the situation is different depending on the country and on the specific work contract) they are still struggling to see their rights fully acknowledged: maternity/paternity leave, pension, sick leave, or simply defined working time are often still considered a luxury.

We have been taught to believe that science is collective enterprise, but early career scientists are actually often left alone. The issue has been (and still is) widely debated, but what are early career researchers doing to improve their own working conditions?

As the saying goes “you only get what you give,” but when it comes to labor rights you actually only get what you ask for.

We have discussed this with the representatives of the International Association of Italian Researchers (AIRIcerca), who gave us an insight on the Italian situation and what the association is doing to try to change things.

Can you tell us a bit more about the association of Italian researchers AIRIcerca?

AIRIcerca is the International Association of Italian Researchers in the world. It represents a networking platform for thousands of Italians that study and hold research-related jobs around the world (from PhD students to junior Professors). First, we promote scientific collaborations and exchange of professional information amongst the members of our community. AIRIcerca is also strongly committed to advocate for a better understanding of the pivotal role played by researchers in modern day society.

In Italy, we launched a novel initiative of scientific dissemination called AIRInforma. This project was conceived by scientists who use their scientific expertise to gather and publish scientific news and concepts using simple yet accurate language. So far, AIRInforma has established a novel channel of scientific communication, receiving excellent feedback and reaching out to thousands of new readers every month on our website and social network pages. Full-text contents are currently available only in Italian but we will soon extend our outreach effort by providing all the abstracts of our past publications in English.

What is the difference in terms of social security between an early career scientist (e.g. PhD students, post-doctoral researchers with fellowships or scholarships) and another kind of worker in Italy?

Within the so-called “Jobs Act,” a labor market reform was recently passed by the Italian legislature. It provides a new form of unemployment benefits  called DIS-COLL, which aims to fill the long-standing gap in terms of social security measures between permanent and non-permanent staff (that is, tenured and untenured workers). Yet to date, the eligibility criteria set forth by the new law seem to exclude PhD students and post-doctoral research fellows (about 50,000 people according to the Italian association of doctoral students and graduates).

In this way, young researchers at the early stages of their careers in academia will continue to “donate” between 5 to 10 years of their professional life with no entitlement to, first and foremost, a retirement plan or maternity leaves. This is because, within the academic career path, researchers are practically considered as nothing but students until they hold a professorship.

AIRIcerca strongly believes that the understanding of the role of young researchers and the related regulations has to change. Pursuing the academic path is a job since its earliest steps, and, as any other job, it combines an educational as well as a more task-oriented component. Scientists in many other countries are fully considered as workers and treated accordingly from a legal perspective: they can apply for a mortgage, are entitled to a retirement plan and so forth. We argue that extending the full worker status to young researchers in Italy, with all the related measures of social protection, should not be a “mission impossible.”

Why in your opinion have researchers accepted this kind of conditions so far? Do you think that nowadays they have a different awareness of their rights?

Probably it is not wrong to say that young researchers that are making their first steps into the academic world are not aware of their rights. There are also other components that historically contributed to develop such a condition of sub-optimal awareness with regard to the condition of full-time workers. Firstly, generally for a student who is pursuing a PhD program, social security benefits do not represent a priority. Thus, he/she often tends to overlook the condition of “social security discrimination” in which he/she lives.

Secondly we, as researchers, lack of a strong, organized Labour Union that can contribute to explain what we have right now (not much) and what we do not have, in terms of social security benefits and rights.

Usually everything changes when people decide to bring their life to the next level (e.g., stability, having a family) and/or become familiar with the regulation of equivalent research positions in other countries in which, unlike Italy, it is quite common to run into postdoctoral fellow or even PhD students who are married with children.

What are the proposals AIRIcerca has put forward to solve this issue?

AIRIcerca is trying to tackle this issue by disseminating the knowledge that we gleaned pulling together our different experiences to give to our associates and followers the tools to make informed decisions. One initiative “guida intergalattica per PhDstoppisti” (“the PhDhiker’s guide to the galaxy”) gathers the PhD experience of our collaborators to provide a unique overview of the PhD life in a number of countries and cities from different standpoints included the social security ones. On the other side we try to give strong messages to the Italian Community through our social initiatives called “lavoceAIRIcercatori” (Give voice to researchers).

We asked all our associates and colleagues to provide us with pictures of them in their lab or place of research in general, describing how their work is not to be considered a “hobby” but a real job. These kinds of initiatives have two main goals: the first is to make all the young Italian researchers aware of their rights as workers and the second is to gain consensus from the Italian society, in order to put pressure on politician on these important issues.

Are you an early career scientist and you want to share the situation of the country you are working in with us? Please email aida.paniccia@frontiersin.org


All the AIRIcerca board members (Lorenzo Agoni, Michele Visentin, Gabriele Malengo, Silvia Sironi, Federico Forneris, Luca Cassetta, Marcello Barisonzi, Alessandro Corda, Andrea Berardi) have contributed to answer the questions for this interview.


Aida Paniccia, PhD
Journal Operations Specialist
Frontiers Editorial Office


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