Mon, Feb 14, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Europe's deteriorating research creating a scientific meltdown

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 US and act as a catalyst for social change. The British Royal Society advocated creating the German Max Planck Society on the grounds that solidarity between international scientific communities could contribute to reconciling former enemies. As a result, big projects such as the European Center 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 1,000 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, 10 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 by the College 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 (German Research Foundation) 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 euros is needed, which is roughly half of the increase promised by EU governments to raise R&D to 3 percent of the GNP in 2010)? What mechanisms will ensure the council's autonomy, a key condition for basing research awards strictly on scientific quality?

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