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Prof José M Torralba (center) with members of his Power Metallurgy research group at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, where he is and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering.
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12 conditions to attract and retain talent in academia

August 2, 2023

By José M Torralba, PhD

Is your university doing everything it can to attract top talent? Here's a checklist of what's needed

In the world of universities and research centers, there is no doubt that talent is the main driver of success. We can have first-rate infrastructures, ample funding and a friendly environment, but if we do not have talent, it is virtually impossible today to compete in science and develop an activity that can really be considered disruptive or even interesting.

But talent is evenly distributed throughout the world (so far it has not been proven that talent is concentrated in a particular place, race, gender or condition), so if we want to have an above average percentage of talented people in our research organization, we have no choice but to attract them and retain them.

However, the policies and actions needed to attract junior talent (people who are close to defending their doctoral theses) are not the same as those needed to attract senior talent —and the more senior, the greater the difference. Here, I will focus on general issues that affect, in some way, all types of talent, although they affect senior more than junior talent.

Of the conditions I will detail and comment, some are totally independent of a government's political action, but most of them can be achieved with an adequate and sustained policy over time. If we fulfill all of them, we will be assured of a talented science system. If we fail to deliver some or most of them, the talk of talent in that territory will be pure dialectic.

These are, in my view, the 12 conditions necessary to attract and retain talent properly.

1. An attractive country/region/city

Various factors contribute to making a region attractive: being a large capital city or a beautiful place on the coast; having good communications; having a good health system and a well-organized and rich science and innovation ecosystem, having an affordable cost of living — or the salary to make it affordable. If the country, region or city is attractive, it will be easier to attract and retain talent. It is difficult to have it all, but a good balance of some of these characteristics can make a particular location attractive.

2. The international reputation of the host institution and or group

If you work in a prestigious research center or university, the name of the place alone can be a driver of talent attraction and retention. It is clear that affiliation to a center of reference can open many future doors, which is why it is much easier for centers with excellent reputations to attract talent. Without neglecting the reputation of the group receiving this search for talent, if we combine both (group and center), we have a competitive package for attracting and retaining talent.

3. A welcoming environment for people from diverse backgrounds

The quality of research as well as teaching and mentoring depend on diverse perspectives. At both my institutions — IMDEA Materials Institute(opens in new tab/window) and UC3M(opens in new tab/window) — an open, transparent and merit-based hiring policy for researchers is an essential part of the human resources strategy. For putting these principles into practice — and making the work environment favorable for researchers once they are hired — both institutions have received the HR Excellence in Research Award(opens in new tab/window). With this seal, the European Commission recognizes institutions that align their HR policies to the 40 principles of the Charter & Code for Researchers(opens in new tab/window), which ensures that researchers have the same rights and obligations in any European country. These principles include gender balance, non-discrimination, and flexible working conditions for researchers, including those with disabilities, so they can be successful in their research and balance career and family. Implementing these principles makes universities more attractive to researchers looking for a new employer or for a host for their research project.

4. The baseline funding of the site

On the basis of exclusively competitive funding (that which is obtained from public calls for proposals or contracts with companies), it is not possible to attract and, above all, retain talent. A center without sufficient baseline funding cannot even consider the challenge of attracting talent, which requires a stable and sufficient future budget projection, which in turn allows for planning. Countries or regions with science systems with little basal funding are not good candidates for receiving and retaining talent.

5. The ability to offer competitive salaries

The place and the environment are fundamental. But then you have to live. The concept of “competitive salary” must, of course, be linked to the standard of living in that environment, but if you are not competitive in the salaries offered, it will be difficult to attract and retain talent. It is obviously very difficult for academia anywhere to compete with industry. But science today is an internationally open environment, and talent moves freely all over the world. Meanwhile, the laws of supply and demand work in science just as they do in the world of top-level sports. We can partially compensate for low salaries with very attractive environments, but the gap between what we offer and the international science market cannot be very large (no more than 20%) or it will be impossible to compete.

6. The possibility of offering competitive start-up funds

Talented prospects are also attracted by sufficient start-up funds. We cannot pretend to attract talented people who have already established a research group and laboratory without offering them the possibility of working, from the very first moment, with guarantees and that will enable them to succeed in competitive calls. No one is likely to secure competitive funding from the outset, so it is necessary to be able to provide the talent you attract with competitive start-up funds so they can begin their career in a different place. These funds will be used, among other things, to start a research group and obtain some infrastructure and to travel to congresses and meetings.

7. Systems for welcoming the family of talent

Any professional who moves usually moves with a family: children who need school, partners or spouses who may need to find a new job. If there is no office or people who are responsible for helping the whole environment of the person as they settle in, it will weigh, in a very negative way, on the possibility of attracting talent. This is particularly acute in what we can call senior talent. Offices that help the families of new arrivals exist in prestigious places and in systems that are prepared to attract talent.

8. First-class research infrastructures

Experimental science is done in well-equipped laboratories. If we do not have first-class infrastructure, even with unique equipment, we are hardly in a position to attract talent. That is why it is much easier to attract talent in disciplines linked to the social sciences, where less infrastructure is needed, although salaries are sometimes much higher in STEM fields.

9. Possibilities of stabilization

If potential talent arrives in a system based on “inbreeding” and with little flexibility in hiring (for example, with strict replacement rates), where the possibilities of stabilizing someone who comes “from outside” the institution are complicated, we can forget about attracting and retaining talent. If an eminent professor comes to our institution, leaving a stable position at home, we must have sufficient leverage to be able to ensure similar conditions at our institution. And for emerging postdocs, if there is no clear tenure track, they will not venture to land in our system.

10. An environment with a cushioned bureaucracy

There are countries and regions where legislation leads to exacerbated bureaucracy in science. This is the case in my country, Spain. This challenge can be minimized with management teams linked to the research groups that can help them surmount bureaucratic hurdles. This aspect is of vital importance when the person attracted comes from an environment where there is not so much “administrative jewelry.”

11. Further incentives and fellowships

Even if you can offer an attractive salary for junior through senior levels, start-up funds and a path to stabilization, if there are no funding programs that supplement these, the process is will be much more challenging, especially in countries like Spain where basal funding is almost non-existent in most regions. A good example of a funding program in Europe is the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions(opens in new tab/window)— the EU’s flagship funding program for doctoral education and post-doctoral training. And in Spain, we are fortunate to have the Ramón y Cajal programme(opens in new tab/window). If there are calls for proposals but these kinds of incentives do not exist, we may be able to attract but never retain.

12. A non-biased recruitment process

As I mentioned earlier, talent has no gender, race or religion. Yet bias can creep into any stage of the recruitment process, no matter how well-meaning the intentions. For example, it’s common to rely on publication output and personal networks, but limiting your process may exclude highly talented women from consideration. This is where technology can be of great use. For example, Elsevier's International Center for the Study of Research worked with Prof Margaret Shiel, Vice Chancellor of Queensland University of Technology, to develop an interactive application to avoid bias in the recruitment process. Its dashboard features 30+ indicators of researcher success: familiar indicators such as publication output and h-index and broader attributes of researcher success, such as mentoring, social engagement, collaboration and innovation.

Once a talented researcher is convinced to apply for a position at our institution, the recruitment process continues to be of utmost importance. In this last stage, a lot is at stake for the candidate as well as the institution. The impression a candidate makes on future employers is conveyed in this process, but also the image of the employers is marked. In this negotiation process, employers may experience a certain bias in their judgement of certain aspects of the candidates. That’s why many universities require unconscious bias training.

Conclusion: the “acid test”

It is easy to predict whether the goal of attracting and retaining talent in a scientific system is plausible or mission impossible — just check these 12 conditions one by one. If most of them are met, you have a real chance; if not, it’s better not to make an effort in order not to generate frustration in both directions (sending and receiving). Most of these conditions are dependent on strong political decisions that must emanate from governments, budgets and political decisions — a question of priorities. Nevertheless, it is common to find governments that boast of policies to attract and retain talent in the scientific-academic field in places where only one or two of these 12 conditions are met. But checking the veracity of these claims is simple. First, we can make a “checklist” of the conditions described above. Second, we can test the results by answering the following questions:

  • What percentage of non-natives in the region or country occupy permanent positions in the system?

  • What percentage of permanent professors have done their doctorate outside the institution where they are based, or outside the region/country?

The acid test

Contributor

José M Torralba

JMTP

José M Torralba, PhD

Professor of Materials Science and Engineering

Universidad Carlos III de Madrid