Brussels, 04 Jun 2004
Fearing its top brains are leaving for greener pastures abroad, the EU has invested significant effort and money into measures boosting scientific career development and the European Research Area (ERA). But a German report now says this 'brain drain' problem has perhaps been hyped.
Last year, Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin set up a special high-level group of experts to investigate what needs to be done to promote scientific careers, and help train and retain researchers in the growing notion of the ERA. The group on Human Resources for Science and Technology in Europe, backed up by studies, noted some serious shortcomings in the EU, the most notable being a shortage of some 500,000 researchers in the foreseeable future.
But a recent report commissioned by the German Research Foundation (DFG) casts doubt on the EU's conclusions, saying that 85% of its scientists who leave the country usually return. What's more, a higher proportion than expected left for fellow European countries, thus still within the ERA.
The study, carried out by researchers at the Universities of Kassel (DE) and Twente (NL), charted the career paths and opinions of former DFG fellows in four broad scientific areas: social sciences (including the arts and humanities), biology and medicine, natural sciences, and engineering.
Making the return flight
Four years ago, European leaders set themselves the mission in Lisbon of becoming the world's knowledge powerhouse by 2010. Providing an environment in which its scientists and engineers can not only be innovative but also see their efforts rolled out into new processes and technologies that improve European living standards is central to the Lisbon strategy. But policy-makers saw signs that the schedule was not being met.
In November 2003, the Commission warned that the EU was losing too many scientists, particularly to the United States, putting at risk its Lisbon and Barcelona objectives. It quoted a study concluding that 75% of EU citizens who obtained doctorates in the USA between 1991 and 2000 had no specific plans to return. The DFG study confirms the high number of German scientists working and studying in the USA, but not the one-way nature of the flight.
The study took a sample of 2 500 former DGF fellowship recipients, covering three separate periods from 1986 through to 1997, and concluded that 72.0% of the respondents had worked abroad during their fellowship. Of that number, 71.1% went to the USA or Canada. But a significant percentage went to other countries in Europe, such as the UK (6.5%), France (4.6%), Switzerland (2.8%), Italy (1.5%), the Netherlands (1.4%) and Sweden (1.3%).
The German study found that – of the 15% of fellows still living abroad – 39.4% resided in the USA, 18.3% were close by in Switzerland and 9.7% were in the UK. A higher than average percentage (19.0%) of natural scientists remained abroad, the report points out.