The Effect of English (see below)
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue Aug 31 12:37:12 UTC 2004
>>From the Chronicle of Higher Education, dated September 3, 2004
Europe Strives to Keep Its Scientists at Home
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
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
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
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
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 priorities.
"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 universities.
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 plans.
After receiving her Ph.D. in microbiology in 1992 from the University of
Wrzburg, 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
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
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,
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 reviewed.
Of course, Europe is far from monolithic in its own scientific culture.
"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 Brchot, 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. Brchot has put into place a number of programs designed to
create a model that combines American-style flexibility with traditional
"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. Brchot.
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. Brchot.
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. Brchot
For all his efforts, Mr. Brchot 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
"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
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 thesis."
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
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 Sciences.
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 Germany's.
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
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
"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 attractive."
Volume 51, Issue 2, Page A1
Copyright 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
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