Supporters of a new charter hope that it will give junior researchers badly needed leverage. Credit: J. SMITH/ALAMY

Ask a hundred young scientists in Europe for their views on their supervisors, funding agencies and university administrators, and you'll get a hundred different answers. But now a ‘career charter’ is to be published that, its backers say, will encourage higher standards for the treatment of junior researchers.

The European Commission, which intends to release the charter on 11 March, wants the 25 member states of the European Union (EU) to adopt it in the hope that this will help to introduce better and more consistent scientific training across the continent. But some researchers are already expressing doubt that it will make much difference.

The charter declares that all EU researchers, including PhD students, should be recognized as professionals and treated accordingly. It defines the rights and duties of both young researchers and their supervisors. And it sets out minimum standards for training, employment conditions and social-security coverage for fixed-term researchers working in universities, research institutes and industrial laboratories.

There is considerable demand for such standards. Many young researchers, especially those in eastern and southern Europe, are working under ill-defined terms of employment, without proper contracts, and are effectively at the mercy of their supervisors.

Young scientists' organizations, such as Eurodoc or the Marie Curie Fellowship Organization, are swamped with letters from researchers who have fallen out with their supervisors, or who feel discriminated against on sexual, racial and other grounds.

In January, for example, an Irish biochemistry postdoc working in Austria told Eurodoc that her supervisor had fired her after she had told him that she was pregnant.

Will the charter help her? Sceptics point out that the commission has no legal means to force EU members, or individual universities, to comply with it. But it will invite member states to report annually on their progress in adopting the charter. And supporters say that its very existence will give young researchers some useful leverage.

Christine Heller del Riego, coordinator of the working group on career development for Euroscience, a grass-roots research organization, sees the charter as a badly needed start. Del Riego,who is an electrical engineer at the University Pontificia Comillas in Madrid, is currently drafting a career development strategy for young researchers at her university. “If you can refer to an EU recommendation, then you have a leverage that might really get things moving,” she says.

Spain's prime minister, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, promised last year to improve the statutory rights of young researchers, for example. But he has since ignored petitions from the FJI, the Spanish young researchers' federation, to go ahead with the promised changes. “Now the EU charter can be used as an additional pressure,” del Riego says.

Others say the charter doesn't go far enough. Martin Grabert, head of the Brussels-based EU liaison office of German research organizations, says he is disappointed by what he terms its “timid, non-committal character”, adding: “This is a typical EU approach, a mere minimal consensus with a good chance of falling flat.”