Brussels, 06 Dec 2004
In his acceptance speech for the Descartes prize for outstanding cross-border research, Howard Trevor Jacobs called on Europe to 'seed and lead global research initiatives'.
Professor Jacobs, who was rewarded for his work on mitochondrial DNA, also appealed to the EU to support excellence 'without overly prescriptive rules or artificial structures', provide proper funding, encourage scientific collaboration across the EU and improve the welcoming package for foreign students by improving mobility within the EU.
'We are at our most productive when we share our thinking,' said Professor Jacobs, who teaches genetics at Tampere University in Finland. 'One night of crazy brain-storming over a few beers is likely to produce more exciting results than 20 years' solitary study in the laboratory.'
According to Professor Jacobs, in order to make European science truly competitive with the world's best research, 'which we believe is the only way to secure the future prosperity of our continents and its citizens, the EU needs to focus much more of its support on simply the best science.'
The EU must identify, using peer-review, the brightest researchers and the institutions and regions that invest properly in research infrastructure, and give them the additional tools needed to do world-class science, along with the freedom to pursue their goals without constant reference to tangible short-term benefits, believes Professor Jacobs.
Although Professor Jacobs accepts that scientists must be accountable for how they spend public money, he emphasises that 'the long-term interest of Europe as a whole depends on freeing up our best minds to generate new knowledge and technologies by organic intellectual processes, not by a rigid and pre-programmed work-plan'.
'The second new dimension that is now badly needed in European science,' continued Professor Jacobs 'is to secure much greater cooperation with the rest of the world. Instead of just being supported by being protected behind continental barriers, European scientists need to interact and collaborate much more widely with those far beyond our shores. The EU can and should be a key instrument in making this possible.'
For the Descartes winner, the EU should seize the opportunity offered by the fact that some aspects of research support are under threat in the traditional centre of science (the US) to drive forward a 'truly international research effort'.
The strength of the US federal funding system, however, should be an example to the EU, explained Professor Jacobs at a press conference following the prize ceremony. In the EU at the moment there is 'enormous waste of resources, and abandonment of virtually all innovative research,' he complained.
'The US has for decades been a magnet for scientists. Now things are changing. The US is less well regarded and is turning more in on itself. This opens a window of opportunity for Europe to increase collaboration and take the leadership,' argued Professor Jacobs.
This is the perfect time to attract those foreign students that are being put off by the US because of the negative climate over there, believes Professor Jacobs. 'We have to welcome people from outside Europe, give them high level positions and improve mobility within the EU by withdrawing the need for visas,' he concluded.
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