[Paleopsych] CHE: Europe Strives to Keep Its Scientists at Home
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Mon Aug 30 14:40:47 UTC 2004
Europe Strives to Keep Its Scientists at Home
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4.9.3
The continent battles the lure of U.S. labs, but some researchers say
the 'brain drain' is overstated
By AISHA LABI
Europeans have worried for decades about the loss of top scientific
talent to the United States, and some recent studies show that the
"brain drain" is getting worse.
Now Europe is fighting back, with new steps designed to keep
scientists at home.
Some researchers, however, argue that their colleagues are overstating
the problem. And some see hope that recent changes, such as
limitations on stem-cell research in the United States, are
encouraging more scientists to stay in Europe.
Many European scientists know all too well that the opportunities they
have at home are often no match for what beckons them to the United
States. European salaries are generally lower; cumbersome
hiring-and-promotion rules mean that scientists can toil at a junior
level for years; and many scientists feel the most innovative research
continues to be done in America.
It came as little surprise to academics, then, that last November a
European Union study titled "The Brain Drain -- Emigration Flows for
Qualified Scientists" determined that the problem was getting worse.
Seventy-one percent of the more than 15,000 scientists born in
European Union countries who had earned doctorates in the United
States between 1991 and 2000 said they had no plans to return home.
"The tendency to have plans to stay in the U.S. appears to be on the
rise," warned the European Commission, executive arm of the EU.
"The most important reasons keeping European scientists and engineers
abroad relate to the quality of work," the commission said. "Better
prospects and projects and easier access to leading technologies were
most often cited as reasons behind plans to work abroad."
Many European scientists echo that view. "There was not much of a
broader research community that a junior person like myself could take
advantage of," says Michael Hetman of his native Poland. He holds an
endowed chair in molecular neurosignaling at the University of
Louisville. "I wanted to do basic research with a clinical
perspective," he says, "and I did not see an outlet in Poland that
could do something like that from the clinical side."
Competition for Knowledge
The expression "brain drain" dates to the 1950s, when the British
Royal Society first applied it to a loss of scientists to the United
States and Canada. Much has changed in the subsequent half-century.
The formation of the European Union and the coordination of policy
among its member states -- whose number increased to 25 from 15 in May
-- has meant that European countries can better position themselves to
counter the lures of North America's well-financed academic and
scientific institutions. Some countries, like Ireland, have had
considerable success in doing so. (See article on facing page.)
With universal recognition that scientific competitiveness is
essential to economic success, Europe has seen a flurry of programs
aimed at fostering research.
At a summit conference in Lisbon in 2000, the European Union set
itself the goal of becoming the most competitive knowledge-based
economy in the world by 2010. Two years later the organization pledged
to increase the amount spent on research and technological development
to 3 percent of gross domestic product by 2010, from just 1.9 percent
in 2000. Businesses, which now provide about half of all
research-and-development money, were called on to increase their
contribution to two-thirds of the total, a proportion already reached
in the United States.
Finland and Sweden have surpassed the 3-percent goal, and some member
countries are nearing it, but others, like Greece, Spain, and Italy,
have no hope of achieving it in time. Groups including the European
Round Table of Industrialists have even questioned whether the EU
should be focusing so much attention on what is apparently such an
The EU's $21.6-billion 6th Framework Program for Research and
Technological Development (the First Framework Program, which ran from
1984 to 1987, marked the start of a collective research policy for
Europe), which began in 2002 and is to run until 2006, is the most
visible example of European efforts to coordinate policy on science
Although it accounts for only 5.4 percent of total public spending on
research and technological development in EU countries, it is at least
a combined effort -- many scientists have complained that the
fragmented nature of Europe's vast and diverse scientific
establishment is an impediment to first-rate research. The primary
goal of the 6th Framework is to mitigate that problem and create a
united scientific community across Europe.
No shortage of resolve exists in Europe to stanch the outflow of
talent. The EU's research commissioner, Philippe Busquin, a physicist
and former Belgian politician, has assigned the issue a high priority.
But many scientists feel that the European approach is itself part of
Bureaucracy is a hallmark of everything the EU undertakes, and
fostering scientific research is no exception. Money for research is
allocated on the principle of juste retour, meaning that member
countries can expect to receive a share of EU funds proportional to
Rather than financing scientific projects based on merit alone, as
determined by peer review, factors like maximizing the number of
member countries represented on a project are considered. Research
priorities are set by EU bureaucrats -- only some of whom are
scientists -- and money is doled out to projects that conform to those
"We want to introduce the element of competition," says Katrien Maes,
executive director of the 12-member League of European Research
Universities, based in Belgium, which includes such leading
institutions as the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Geneva, Leiden,
Under the 6th Framework, European money is directed mainly at
strategic or applied research, but Ms. Maes's organization and other
groups are pushing for more money for basic research, especially at
In June the European Commission pledged to create a body that will
support basic research solely on the basis of quality. The specifics
of the forthcoming European Research Council, modeled on the United
States' National Science Foundation, have yet to be decided, but
researchers have lauded the plan.
"The priorities for the ERC will be different" from those in effect
now, says Ms. Maes. "Scientists won't have to submit grant proposals
in response to calls to find solutions to specific problems, but will
be able to submit research ideas not tied to a policy-driven agenda.
This means the best projects will be funded.
"It will be a while before we see more-concrete suggestions as to how
this organization will be governed, how it will be funded, what it can
fund, how independent it will be in relation to the commission," says
Ms. Maes. "But one thing that has come forward is that the most
important criteria that it will be based on is scientific excellence,
which means that it will be run by scientists with an international
reputation, and it will fund projects that are of the highest
standards of scientific excellence."
Easier in the United States
It is often easier for a European scientist to secure a place in a lab
in the United States than in a neighboring nation.
Unlike other academic pursuits, like humanities and the social
sciences, in which a mentor's presence may be a less-than-compelling
draw, many scientific researchers choose their posts based largely on
the reputation of the scientist in whose laboratory they will be
working. Although Europe is well integrated in many ways, individual
countries still differ widely on factors as general as career paths at
their universities and as specific as the transferability of pension
After receiving her Ph.D. in microbiology in 1992 from the University
of Würzburg, in Germany, Bettina Bankamp headed for a postdoctoral
position at the University of Florida. "I had no intention of staying
in the U.S. after the two years were up," she recalls.
More than a decade later she and her husband, who is also a
microbiologist, are still on American soil -- along with half of the
10 people in their doctoral group. She attributes her own decision to
several factors, including the difficulties she felt she would face as
a woman starting a scientific career in Germany.
"After the postdoc you have to get the Habilitation to get tenure,
which is a major hassle," she says, referring to a process used in
Germany that amounts to a second dissertation. "And even once you get
the Habilitation, to find a position as a professor is very difficult,
especially for women."
Ms. Bankamp acknowledges that the situation might have changed in the
12 years since she left Germany. But it is not just the disadvantages
they thought they would face in Europe that led her and her husband to
make their careers in the United States. Ms. Bankamp does basic
research on measles at the federal Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, in Atlanta, an institution that has no equivalent in
Germany. "The connection between public health and basic science that
we do here is unique," she says.
European Union officials have pledged to do more to enable researchers
to move from country to country. In June Mr. Busquin, the research
commissioner, announced the formation of the European Network of
Mobility Centers, which is designed to make it easier for researchers
and their families to move around Europe. More than 200 centers will
offer customized assistance to researchers in their professional and
personal lives, including providing information on fellowships and
grants, and on finding housing and schools for their families.
The Effect of English
But other, less quantifiable factors that are just as important in
persuading scientists to opt for one locale over another are less
easily affected by the EU. A network of research opportunities and
openings in Europe is only as good as the listings it contains -- and
for many scientists the United States still has more to offer.
The attraction may not be purely professional. With English the lingua
franca of science in much of the world, a researcher from Sweden or
Slovenia may find it easier to adapt to life in California than in,
American institutions may be able to offer scientists technological
advantages, bigger budgets, and greater professional flexibility, but
Europe does have its attractions. In most of its countries, scientists
enjoy the status of civil servants with guaranteed employment,
allowing them to pursue controversial or risky research free of the
constraints felt by a researcher whose status is periodically
Of course, Europe is far from monolithic in its own scientific
"Northern Europe and the United Kingdom have always been much more
flexible and had more success in establishing new career paths and
more competitiveness," says Christian Bréchot, director general of
Inserm, France's leading institute of health and medical research.
France itself is famous for the rigidity of its career paths in
science. Most research scientists are state employees, who enjoy the
employment guarantees of other civil servants. In the three years
since he took over at Inserm. Mr. Bréchot has put into place a number
of programs designed to create a model that combines American-style
flexibility with traditional European characteristics.
"Our idea is not to move in the direction of the United States and to
lose what have been our advantages, but to recognize that we have much
to learn, and to reinforce flexibility and the attractiveness of our
career tracks," says Mr. Bréchot.
One program puts young researchers on distinctly un-Gallic temporary
contracts, three years in length, with reasonable salaries and access
to the infrastructure of the French scientific establishment. "The
novelty in the program was that for the first time, somebody who does
not have a permanent position could apply to it," says Mr. Bréchot.
Another innovation he has championed is a kind of hybrid position, in
which researchers with permanent positions also get additional
temporary contracts from one of Inserm's partner institutions, which
include universities and hospitals.
"The idea is that about two-thirds of the scientist's salary will come
from the permanent position, and a third will come from these
contracts, which will last from three to four years," he explains.
In efforts to persuade researchers to return from the United States,
where getting tenure can be a long and difficult process, "the
capacity of Inserm to provide permanent positions is very attractive,"
Mr. Bréchot says.
For all his efforts, Mr. Bréchot wonders whether the discussion of
Europe's brain drain is overwrought. He sits on an EU career-advisory
group in Brussels and has witnessed much of the hand-wringing about
how to reverse the flow.
"I wouldn't say it is not a problem, but it is more interesting to
analyze the reasons than to always argue about the brain drain," he
says. "We have a lot of scientists who want to come back, and we have
a problem with the diffusion of information to them about the programs
A recent report commissioned by the German Research Foundation, the
country's main organization for supporting science, found that fears
of an academic exodus there have been overstated.
Alexis-Michel Mugabushaka, a researcher at the foundation, known by
its German initials, DFG, helped conduct the study as an associate
researcher at the University of Kassel. "Our study focused on German
scientists, from a sample drawn from former DFG postdoctoral fellows,"
he says. The subjects were selected randomly from fellows in three
groups from the past 18 years. "When we asked them where they are now,
85 percent are in Germany." That figure is far higher than previous
reports had indicated.
"Going abroad may be better described as 'brain circulation,'" says
Mr. Mugabushaka, an immigrant from Rwanda.
"Most of the other studies which address this issue focus on
scientists who are already in the U.S. and try to ask them whether
they intend to come back," he says. "It's a very interesting question,
but it does not address the extent to which scientists are abroad. You
can always find different patterns of international mobility. What we
were interested in was capturing the whole picture."
Other evidence from Germany bolsters the notion that the concern may
be overstated. If Germany's renowned Max Planck Institutes are any
gauge, the country is actually enjoying something of a brain gain.
"We have the leading scientists," says Bernd Wirsing, a spokesman for
the Max Planck Society, which operates the research institutes.
"One-third come from abroad; many of them are from the U.S.
Seventy-three of our 276 directors are foreign citizens who applied
In Britain, too, reports suggest that the fears have been exaggerated.
Recent news accounts cited a study by the Association of University
Teachers that showed a net increase in the overall number of academics
at British universities.
Even so, "we think there is still a brain-drain issue," says Peter
Cotgreave, director of the advocacy group Save British Science. The
raw numbers may show an increase, he says, but "if you go talk to
universities, they say that they are routinely having difficulty
getting good people. More than a third of the deans of science in
British universities have reported that they have filled jobs with
people who were not good enough.
"So it's not a matter of whether you have enough people, but whether
you have the right people, the best people."
And so it goes. Each European country and institution has its own
perspective on the severity of the problem, colored as much by
anecdotal as by statistical evidence.
Jan Carlsdtedt Duke is dean of research at Sweden's Karolinska
Institute, whose faculty members choose the Nobel laureates in
medicine. He has been at Karolinska for 30 years and sees no cause for
alarm. "We may be a little unique, in that medicine is perhaps a bit
more privileged than other areas of science," he says, "but a lot of
our Swedish graduates go abroad for a postdoctorate, and a lot do come
back. We want our students to go abroad."
A third of Karolinska's Ph.D. students come from abroad. Mr. Duke
notes, and "the majority of these leave Sweden after doing their
But he is pleasantly surprised at the number of graduates Sweden
manages to retain. "The opportunities and salaries that we can compete
with are considerably less than in North America. We've been very
fortuitous up to now that we've been able to keep some of our top
scientists because of the opportunities we have -- not moneywise, but
because of research they can carry out."
Research on human embryonic stem cells, which has been limited by
federal restrictions in the United States, is one field that is
thriving in Sweden. Another factor that may be contributing to the
decision of some scientists and researchers to remain in Europe is the
post-September 11 American political climate, which many Europeans
Even Poland, one of the EU's newest members, with far less money and
fewer facilities than Sweden to entice scientists from the United
States, has seen more scientists choosing to stay at home than go to
the United States. Poland joined in sending troops to the war in Iraq
last year, but the war has become increasingly unpopular, and "Bush
and Iraq are definitely becoming major factors," says Leszek
Kaczmarek, chairman of the biology division of the Polish Academy of
Mr. Kaczmarek sits on a panel of the European Molecular Biology
Organization, which awards about 160 postdoctoral fellowships to
applicants in 24 European countries each year. He is convinced that a
marked improvement in the quality of applications over the past couple
of years is a reflection of the fact that European scientists are
increasingly reluctant to go to the United States.
A neuroscientist, he did his postdoctoral work in Philadelphia but
returned to Poland after two years. "Unfortunately there are very few
people who do come back," he acknowledges. "I would estimate that
there are something like 40,000 Polish scientists working in the U.S."
One of them is Mr. Hetman, a former student of Mr. Kaczmarek. Like his
mentor, Mr. Hetman went to the United States after completing his
Ph.D., in 1997. After three years at the University of Washington he
returned to Poland to take up a faculty position at Warsaw's
International Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology, a joint
venture between the United Nations and the Polish Academy of Sciences.
"It gave me a lot of freedom," says Mr. Hetman. "I was given full
liberty to develop my own research program and build my own group." He
notes that he was even exempt from having to complete the arduous
Habilitation, a requirement that Poland's academic system shares with
Yet something was lacking. "One of the important things that I was not
satisfied with was that I felt a little like being on an island in the
institute," says Mr. Hetman.
When he received an offer to fill an endowed chair in molecular
neurosignaling at the University of Louisville's Kentucky Spinal Cord
Injury Research Center, in 2002, he packed his bags once again.
And so Mr. Hetman became an illustration of the difficulties that
Poland faces in its attempts to plug the brain drain. He "is an
extreme example in that he got the best possible package," says Mr.
Kaczmarek. "Poland just does not provide a good enough environment for
people who want to come back."
But despite his conviction that the brain drain is bad for his
country, Mr. Kaczmarek is also sanguine about the phenomenon. Invoking
a phrase he remembers from his time in Philadelphia, when his son came
home from school with a copy of the Declaration of Independence, he
"I'm against the brain drain as a trend, but not against anyone who
goes over there," he says. "Everyone has right to the pursuit of his
or her own happiness. It's up to us to make staying here more
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