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The Black Hole

Europe to offer cross-border pension plans for mobile researchers


Calling all North American funding agencies!

Researcher mobility appears to be a high priority for funding agencies and universities, and it has many advantages for the science community – most importantly the sharing of new ideas and the formation of new networks. Recently, there has been a backlash against the “need to move,” with many scientists doing perfectly well in their current city/institute and relocations being costly in terms of time and money.

Loss of (or reduced return on) pension contributions is one of the many annoyances contributing to the latter. But finally there is a step in the right direction coming from Europe: the RESAVER Pan-European Pension Fund. It won’t launch until next year so I cannot comment on its mechanics nor its financial benefits/drawbacks. But, if it does what it says on the box, it will be an incredible boon for young researchers.

In excess of those for whom shifting pensions would be inconvenient, the larger class who stand to benefit from RESAVER are international postdoctoral fellows. There are a huge number of scientists on temporary contracts in foreign countries for whom it does not make financial sense to start a pension. Indeed, many pensions requires multiple years of contributions before any benefit is received. This means that those on short-term contracts would be foolish to sign up for such a plan, yet many contracts in the laboratory sciences are just that – fixed terms of 1-3 years. A plan like RESAVER would permit a researcher to leave their home country for an unspecified term and contribute to a pension plan where the benefits would transfer back home without losing out.

Consider this: the median age at PhD completion in the United States is 31.8 years (2012, NSF statistics). It is less likely that students have sufficient funds to contribute significantly into pension plans, meaning that they are already behind their peers who elect to become teachers, lawyers, accountants, etc. Now, after their training, should one of these recently minted PhD holders decide to move abroad for 3-5 years (or more!) of postdoctoral research, they are all of a sudden finding themselves, through no fault of their own, moving back home as a highly trained researcher without a dime in pensions at the tender age of 37.

An internationally transferable pension plan would alleviate a significant portion of this problem, but pension plans are incredibly difficult to set up forms scratch. This is what makes the RESAVER programme even more incredible since the European Commission has provided funds under it’s Horizon 2020 program to help establish the pension fund.

As it currently stands, this style of plan would give European researchers a solid financial reason to make their academic re-locations within Europe to retain the benefits of their plans, potentially hampering recruitment efforts by other countries.

For these reasons, I urge Canadian funding agencies and universities to consider such a progressive programme – at the very least within North America, but ideally worldwide. International fellows represent more than 50% of Canada’s young scientific talent and this would be a massive step forward in supporting this cadre of researchers.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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