Controversial Berlin law gives postdocs pathway to permanent jobs

In September, Berlin’s legislature took a radical step to address the precarious employment situation that plagues many early-career researchers. It passed a law requiring universities to offer new postdoc hires a pathway to a permanent position, a move that could serve as a test case for how—or how not—to solve academia’s revolving door problem.

Supporters of the provision, which legislators voted on without consulting university representatives, say it will improve working conditions for postdocs in the city. But it has led to turmoil: a hiring freeze, a resignation, and predictions that it will end Berlin’s prominence as a center of research. The law is “well-intentioned, but poorly executed,” says Sabine Kunst, president of Humboldt University of Berlin, who announced in October that she would resign at the end of the year.

Like early-career researchers elsewhere, German postdocs face stiff competition for limited faculty vacancies. They also face a time limit: Researchers can only spend 6 years working on temporary contracts at universities or research institutes after earning a Ph.D. That law, passed in 2007, was supposed to help prevent Ph.D. graduates from getting strung along on a series of precarious contracts. But many argue it forces too many productive researchers out of academia.

The Berlin law was triggered in part by a video posted on the German research ministry’s website. Meant to promote the 2007 law, it stirred outrage. It told the story of a postdoc named Hanna, explaining that the law created opportunities for junior scholars by encouraging senior postdocs like Hanna to move on—to nonacademic jobs if necessary. Without the law, the video said, senior postdocs would “clog the system.”

In a social media campaign that went viral in June, angry researchers invited colleagues to share their stories about problems caused by the 6-year term limit. Thousands did, using the hashtag #IchBinHanna (I am Hanna), generating so much attention that on 24 June, the German Bundestag discussed the issue in parliament. Lawmakers who govern Berlin—a city-state—went further and inserted a clause about permanent positions into legislation that was already in the works.

Critics note that the law does not include the funding that would be needed to convert even a fraction of the city’s more than 1000 postdoc positions to permanent status—and hire more postdocs in the future. “The goal is appreciated—we need more permanent positions. But you also need more money to do that,” says Peter-André Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference, which represents university leaders.

The law also fails to specify what the pathway to permanence looks like—for instance, what criteria to set for a postdoc to qualify and who decides whether they have been fulfilled. Observers expect those details to be worked out in the months ahead. But in the meantime, the Free University of Berlin—one of four research intensive universities the law affects—has halted all postdoc hiring. Federal legislators who belong to the center-right Christian Democratic Union party are also considering challenging the law in court, on the grounds that federal law governing academic contracts supersedes it.

Kunst says the law will require such a massive reorganization of her university that she would not be able to achieve any of her other goals. For example, if departments add permanent staff, they are required—thanks to a different set of federal rules—to accept more undergraduate students into their programs, which would cause additional budget woes. The law will also impact the university’s ability to recruit established professors from elsewhere, she fears, because any postdocs they want to bring with them would automatically become eligible for permanent positions.

Supporters of the legislation agree it isn’t perfect. But it’s a step in the right direction, they say. “It raises the pressure” on university leaders, says Anette Simonis, chair of the faculty staff council at the Charité University Hospital of Berlin and spokesperson for the “Landesvertretung Akademischer Mittelbau Berlin,” an organization of midlevel academics. For years, they’ve ignored protests and requests for change, she says. “This is a starting point for a real discussion about how to get away from the idea that the only way to be a scientist is to be a full professor.”

Researchers outside Germany are paying attention as well. Miguel Jorge, a senior lecturer at the University of Strathclyde who has advocated for early-career scientists, says the law is consistent with other calls for changes within the European Union. A declaration he co-authored in 2016, for instance, recommended a shift away from funding short-term projects and toward funding more long-term positions. For that to work, “we would need to change the funding paradigm,” he says.

The problem, Kunst says, is that lawmakers “tried to pack a revolution of the system into a single paragraph,” without understanding the longer term effects. Kristin Eichhorn, an adjunct professor at the University of Stuttgart and one of the #IchBinHanna initiators, agrees. Any tweak to the system has downstream effects, she notes, similar to the unintended harm caused by the 6-year limit.

Eichhorn hopes the new federal government, expected to take office next month, will tackle sustainable employment reform for scientists across Germany. “There’s a risk of making things worse,” she says. “Let’s not rush. Let’s think this through and come up with something that actually works.”