If you're reading this, you have probably already made the decision that academia is the life for you. Would you do so again? Or maybe you are a graduate student or postdoc deciding whether you want to pursue an academic career. Or you may be trying to find a route out as fast as possible!

If the latter is the case, you are part of an increasing and worrying trend. Scares about recruitment crises in science have been heard before, but are we really getting to a stage when the supply line of trained researchers is drying up? A recent report by the UK's Royal Academy of Engineering says there is a ‘demographic time-bomb' on the way. The report cites “definitive numerical evidence” of significant staff shortages facing UK university engineering departments as a result of staff reaching retirement age and falling recruitment rates. Staff numbers fell by 10% between 1995 and 2000 — and the number of younger staff is also falling. I've focused on how to attract women to science in the past, but what about attracting young people to science? Have careers in science, and particularly academia, lost their charm in recent years? If so, why? And what can be done to reverse the tide?

Euroscience conducted a survey of German political parties on the eve of the country's election last fall. Germany has half a million full-time positions in industrial and public research and an economy heavily dependent upon technical innovation, but science policy plays a minor role in election campaigns, according to Euroscience. The ruling Social Democrat-Green alliance cites the lack of compatibility between research jobs and family life as one of the main reasons for the current indifference to scientific careers. But does this get to the heart of the problem? There are plenty of jobs in other sectors, just as family-unfriendly, that aren't suffering from the same attrition in new recruits. Salaries are another possible source of discontent. The Greens are suggesting a performance-related salary system, which could go part way to help reward high achievers. But perhaps one of the most oft-heard complaints is the difficulty in finding a permanent position.

New legislation in Europe on casualization may force the issue. Employees on short-term contracts are now entitled to the same pay and conditions as permanent staff and can only be employed under such a contract for a maximum of four years. In France, similar legislation has existed for some time, and a recent survey by the European Science Foundation (ESF) found that three-quarters of the French respondents had a permanent position. But elsewhere the situation is very different. Overall, the ESF survey found that only one-third of respondents under 40 with a PhD had a permanent position. In the UK, for example, 50% of academic staff and 75% of new starters are on short-term contracts. Higher education employs 11% of all fixed-term contract workers — second only to the hotel and catering sector.

Could it be that the recruitment crisis in science and engineering represents young people voting with their feet to avoid a profession that does not value its workers or develop their careers? Could this European legislation be the death-knell to the ‘scandal of casualization' in universities?

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(03)00201-3