German chancellor Angela Merkel and state prime ministers have signed a €1-billion (US$1.1-billion) agreement to fund 1,000 new tenure-track professorships, in the hopes of retaining and recruiting top academic talent in the nation.

According to the Nachwuchspakt ('junior pact'), as the contract is known, the federal government will pay young professors as they work towards tenure, after which state-funded universities will assume financial responsibility.

“It's the first time that the federal government, as far as I know, is investing such a lot of money into the careers of young scientists,” says Christian Schäfer of the German Academic Exchange Service in Bonn. The agreement, signed on 16 June, reflects an effort to improve the job situation for young researchers in Germany, where tenure-track positions are rare. Scientists typically work in temporary posts until they are eligible for a faculty spot — usually not until their early 40s, at which point it is difficult to start a non-academic career.

Because of the perceived insecurity, there are great minds who leave the academic world.

Schäfer and many young researchers say that the agreement is a positive step — but that more needs to be done. “It's better than nothing,” says Andreea Scacioc, a structural biologist in Göttingen, who earned a PhD in 2014. “But it's too little.”

Every year, about 28,000 PhD and medical students graduate from German universities. There are about 25,000 actively employed professors, according to the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers (DHV). The Society of Junior Professors, a national advocacy group for junior academics, has argued that tenure track ought to be the default entry-level post for junior academics, and DHV officials estimate that 7,500 more professorships are needed to offer young academics a better future.

The pact will run from 2017 to 2032 and involve two major hiring waves, in 2017 and 2019. Universities must apply for funds to set up these professorships. The federal government will fund the first six years of a professor's position, as well as two extra years for those who earn tenure. But researchers will still need to obtain grant funding because the pact funds will mainly cover their salary. Fifteen percent of the total money will be set aside for universities to develop research career paths — for example, by instituting other kinds of permanent positions.

German universities tend to hire few permanent professors. Those who are hired run a 'mini-department', says Jakob Macke, a computational neuroscientist at the Max Planck-affiliated neuroscience-research centre Caesar in Bonn. The general route to independence has been to perform a Habilitation — a sort of second thesis — under a professor's guidance, which qualifies a postdoc for a professorship.

Starting in the late 1990s, German institutions introduced various sorts of junior professorships and group-leader positions. These allow young researchers to skip the Habilitation and run their own labs, but they are temporary — and many researchers still do a Habilitation. “Because of the perceived insecurity, there are great minds who leave the academic world,” says Jens Pöppelbuß, a junior professor of industrial services at Germany's University of Bremen. Other talented scientists decamp for nations that offer more direct career paths.

The Nachwuchspakt arose in part from changes to Germany's 2005 Excellence Initiative, which funded graduate schools; 'clusters of excellence' that offered international-scale training and research facilities; and competitive research programmes. The original initiative will expire in 2017, and the new version — also signed on 16 June — will drop its focus on graduate schools and early-career scientists, leaving a hole that the Nachwuchspakt will fill.

But Scacioc points out that the pact does not set a quota for hiring women. She fears that it could perpetuate the status quo in which men are more likely to secure professorships, thanks in part to their winning more prestigious awards. Requirements for hiring and tenure will need to be clear and transparent to keep the process fair and to ensure that the best candidates get the positions, says Jule Specht, a personality psychologist at the Free University of Berlin.

“Money from the federal government can only provide some incentives,” says Pöppelbuß. “All the different federal states and all universities must commit themselves to establishing more reliable and predictable career paths in academia.”