Brain-drain to U.S.Europe’s scientific meltdown [Archives:2005/818/Opinion]

February 21 2005

By Claude Kordon
After World War II, most Europeans agreed that scientific research would not only boost their economies, but also deliver greater technological autonomy from the United States and act as a catalyst for social change.

The British Royal Society advocated creating the German Max Planck Society on the ground that solidarity between international scientific communities could contribute to reconciling former enemies. As a result, big projects such as the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN), the European Space Agency (ESA), and the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), were founded to help unite European research efforts in basic science.

Today, however, European science is declining in almost all countries (Sweden, Finland, and Iceland are exceptions), wasting existing talent and losing attractiveness for young people. On average, a young European scientist working in the US receives 2.5 times more research support than in Europe. No surprise, then, that a brain drain has developed. Indeed, Europe has only five scientific researchers per 1000 inhabitants, compared to eight in the US and nine in Japan. Despite its strong scientific tradition, figures for Central Europe are even worse, and the cost of EU integration is likely to further shift priorities away from science and education.

Shrinking budgets are also damaging established scientists. In the life sciences, for example, foundations find it hard to identify high-level Europeans for awards. This is not due to lower scientific quality, but to the higher levels of sustained support available to American group leaders to transform new ideas into discoveries.

Massive military and health investments by the US government have generated a critical mass of research, which in turn attracts private funding – including from European companies, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry. Something similar can and does work in Europe. In Finland, for example, ten years of sustained public funding is now catalyzing private investments and fueling regular increases in R&D budgets.

Edith Cresson, a former European Commissioner for Research, once said that, “funding directly nanotechnologies would have been more rewarding than creating CERN.” She was wrong: the complexity of modern science does not allow anyone, least of all bureaucrats, to predict where innovation will emerge. Public funding of basic research and industrial investments are both needed to achieve long-term technological development.

Although most national funding agencies lack imagination when it comes to European cooperation, several institutions are aware of Europe's deteriorating research and the handicaps European scientists face in competition with those in the US and Japan (and also, increasingly, India and China). At a meeting organized for November 2005 by the Coll'ge de France, Nobel laureates, science historians, and managers of European universities and research facilities will stress the need for a new science policy, including in the social sciences and humanities, in the presence of ministers and European commissioners.

Euroscience and the European Science Foundation have also made suggestions aimed at shoring up political will:

Establish a European Research Council. This initiative, originally presented by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and the magazine Nature, proposes to create a pan-European funding agency to organize international competition in “hard” and “soft” basic science. Most national research organizations and the European Commission support the idea, but questions persist: who will provide the budget (at least _2 billion is needed, which is roughly half of the increase promised by EU governments to raise R&D to 3% of the GNP in 2010)? What mechanisms will ensure the Council's autonomy, a key condition for basing research awards strictly on scientific quality?

Implement general European training schemes. Large facilities have trained a few generations of genuinely European scientists. But they cover only a small range of scientific disciplines; in most others, education is still overwhelmingly national. The Bologne protocol, which aims at harmonizing university training throughout Europe, could prove useful here. In parallel, European post-doctoral schemes need reappraisal. In the US, such schemes contribute to widespread dissemination of expertise, whereas European laboratories still use them as waiting lines without putting enough emphasis on multinational and multidisciplinary trajectories.

Give appropriate recognition, salaries, and autonomy to young scientists. Unfortunately, young scientists are largely viewed as a source of cheap manpower, deterring the best students from embracing scientific careers. The new Charter of Scientists now under discussion in the European Commission should improve the situation, by making flexible career tracks compatible with transferable social benefits.

Europe needs proactive policies to meet the challenges of new research needs – and to take advantage of subsequent job opportunities – in areas like sustainable development, climate change, natural hazards, and public health. Creating an international pool of expertise could become an important asset for European universities, while enabling European industries to create new jobs.

Europe's science policies should also frame a new deal for developing countries. Today, scientific relations between developed and developing countries are unequal; important genetic discoveries based on Third World diseases provide neither appropriate credit to local scientists nor fair returns to the populations that made them possible. Moreover, the North-South gap in public health is a major threat to the future of mankind.

Europe should seek to make science more user-friendly, both to its own researchers and would-be scientists and those in developing countries. Let us hope that Europe's politicians have the foresight to meet these challenges before European science becomes irreversibly marginalized.

Claude Kordon, the former head of a neuroscience laboratory at the French Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM), is past president of Euroscience, a European association for the advancement of science and the reappraisal of its relations with society.