«The University is taking its responsibility to young scientists»

The coronavirus crisis has slowed down or even made it impossible to continue some research work. The delay may have consequences for the personal careers of members of the «corps intermédiaire» with fixed-term employment contracts. In order to help these researchers, the Rectorate allows the extension of their appointment for a period of two months in principle, subject to certain conditions. Details from Martial Pasquier, Vice-Rector in charge of the «Human Resources and Finance» dicastery.

Research on ants conducted in Laurent Keller’s group (Department of ecology and evolution, Faculty of biology and medecine). Photo Fabrice Ducrest © UNIL

Following a decision taken by the political authorities on Friday 13 March 2020, UNIL has closed its campus. While the research facilities have been gradually brought back into operation since 27 April, this period has had an impact on the lives of many scientists, including members of the «corps intermédiaire». A new scheme, made official by the UNIL Rectorate on 8 May, responds to this concern. The extension of certain fixed-term contracts is now authorized (practical information & deadlines).

Who are the persons concerned by this measure?

The scheme concerns researchers working on a fixed-term contract whose personal work has been affected by the closure of the campus. More specifically, it concerns scientists who have a function defined by the «Loi sur l’Université» (graduate assistant, first assistant, master assistant) and persons who are financed by external donors such as the Swiss National Science Foundation or the European Union (SNSF doctoral student, senior researcher).

Why did you set up this system?

The researchers we are talking about are at a pivotal point in their careers, when they are building up their academic record. Imagine, for example, that you are unable to complete your doctoral thesis in the time allotted! The University’s Rectorate puts a great deal of importance on the next generation of researchers, and recognizes the importance of their contribution to research. By agreeing to enter into a contract extension, it takes on its responsibility towards young scientists.

How many people are we talking about?

In total, we have 1329 fixed-term contracts. Of these, 550 are financed by external, Swiss or European funds. The Directorate relies on the support of the professors. Indeed, we would like them to support the young researchers for whom they are responsible, by seeking additional resources from funding agencies. The effort to find solutions is a collective one.

It is obvious that the biologists, who have not had access to their laboratories for several weeks, have seen their work come to a halt as a result of the crisis. What other types of research could be affected?

For the Rectorate, it is not the scientific discipline that serves as a reference for the system put in place, but the consequences of the authorities’ decisions on research. A biologist can very well make normal progress on his thesis by writing articles based on his previous work. However, there are less obvious a priori cases, which our constructive collaboration with ACIDUL (Association du corps intermédiaire et des doctorant.e.s de l’Université de Lausanne) has brought to light.

For example?

Think of a researcher in social sciences who had planned to conduct interviews with people living in an EMS as part of his thesis: his work was made impossible because he had no access to the «field». Scientists who need access to collections of particular objects, such as archival holdings, are also barred because the institutions are closed.

For some people, it is not so much the cessation of research as the mobilization at the Civil Defence that puts a brake on their academic careers.

Indeed. We have identified five reasons that pave the way for a contract extension. There is, of course, the impossibility of access to the campus, or the «field», and the deterioration or loss of research data. Second, we have included scientists who have had to be much more involved in teaching than usual, for example, to mentor students in online sessions or to answer their questions via e-mail. In addition, employees mobilized by the army or civil defence in the fight against COVID-19 are also included. Finally, some employees have had to deal with more complicated situations in their private lives, such as childcare or assistance to vulnerable persons.

The measure decided will not be applied uniformly.

No. I emphasize that we will be looking at the files on a case-by-case basis. There is no automatism.

What is the procedure in place?

Following our discussions with ACIDUL, the Rectorate has decided that requests should be addressed to the deaneries, using the available forms. Faculty administrations may request additional information from the responsible professors before an initial evaluation of the request. The applications are then reviewed by an ad hoc committee headed by François Bussy, Vice-Rector in charge of the Research, International Relations and Continuing Education dicastery. A member of the Graduate Campus and the Director of the Human Resources Department also sit on this commission. I would like to point out that applications will be considered in the order of the contract deadlines, and that the last deadline for submission