[Paleopsych] CHE: Europe Strives to Keep Its Scientists at Home

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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


    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
    unrealistic goal.
    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
    and technology.
    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
    the problem.
    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
    their contribution.
    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,
    and Heidelberg.
    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,
    say, Portugal.
    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.
    Exaggerated Fears?
    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
    we have."
    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
    from abroad."
    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
    find inhospitable.
    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
    Something Missing
    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
    turns philosophical.
    "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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