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A Look at Aspects of Research Policy in the European Union

AIBS Washington Watch, February 2004

Robert E. Gropp

Public policy and business leaders worldwide increasingly recognize the economic and quality-of-life benefits that robust scientific research and development (R&D) programs can confer. Indeed, European Union (EU) leaders have made it a priority to establish a European Research Area, an array of initiatives dedicated to making the continent's R&D enterprise more competitive.

Data suggest that Europe lags behind the United States and Japan in key areas of scientific research and innovation. A Mobility Strategy for the European Research Area, a report prepared for the European Parliament, indicates that the European R&D workforce is relatively small compared with that in the United States or Japan. In Europe, only 5.1 of every 1000 people are part of the R&D workforce, whereas in the United States and Japan, the corresponding numbers are 7.4 and 8.9.

The problem is not that Europe is failing to produce new researchers, however—it is that some of the best young scientists leave Europe to pursue their careers elsewhere. As the report notes, "Europe...[faces] a brain drain to the U.S. of young scientific and technological personnel," a situation that troubles European science policy leaders and economic analysts. They fear that this trend could impair Europe's economic competitiveness in a global, knowledge-based economy.

Although statistics on the subject are incomplete, Michael G. Finn of the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education has tracked the numbers of foreign students who choose to stay in the United States after completing doctoral programs. His analysis shows that those numbers grew during the 1990s. One measure—the number of foreign graduates still in the United States two years after receiving a doctorate—climbed from 49 percent in 1989 to 71 percent in 2001.

As part of the European Research Area effort, EU member states aim to eliminate the impediments to research in Europe that have caused many young scientists to pursue careers elsewhere: conflicting, often restrictive immigration policies, social security systems, labor laws, and cultural heritages among EU states. To reinvigorate the research environment, EU leaders explain, it must be made easier for researchers to return to Europe and to move between countries within the EU. Because science advances with the infusion of new ideas and practices, drawing former European scientists back to the EU, or supporting scientific travel to the United States for collaborative research, will ultimately benefit every EU member state. Similarly, if European countries are to recruit the best and the brightest, they must allow individuals to travel to or work at state-of-the-art facilities. For these reasons, the EU is working to better coordinate policies among its member states to facilitate intra-European relocation.

However, not everyone is convinced that the mechanisms suggested by the European Research Area will be successful in attracting and retaining promising young researchers. At a meeting convened by the Italian Embassy in the United States to discuss transatlantic mobility of researchers, Enrico Nicolo, assistant professor of clinical surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, expressed skepticism about the plan, noting that the inability to pursue independent research interests contributed to his decision to move to the United States. Nicolo was not alone in voicing this perspective: Many Italian scientists now working in the United States said they had little confidence in their former government's ability to make the institutional changes they would require before returning to Italy. Critics charge that the Italian research environment is too bureaucratic, lacks accountability and peer review, and is managed in a top-down fashion that stifles the ability of young researchers to pursue new lines of investigation. Some scientists representing other European nations contended, however, that these characterizations should not be applied uniformly to all European research centers or programs.

Regardless of which perspective is accurate, the passionate debate at the meeting illustrates the challenges facing those working to revamp European science policy. As in the United States, the major hurdle that needs to be cleared is finding a way to recruit new talent into the scientific workforce.

Robert E. Gropp (rgr...@aibs.org) is AIBS's senior public policy representative.

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