Brussels, 31 Mar 2005
Today's increasingly global economy has many consequences, and in the scientific field perhaps the most obvious of these is the internationalisation of research and development (R&D).
Companies that wish to carry out research can now establish facilities in any part of the world, and are more likely to base their decision on local capabilities and the availability and cost of qualified researchers than where the business itself happens to be headquartered.
What challenges and opportunities does this trend create, and how can public authorities support this process and mitigate any negative consequences that may arise? These were the questions that government ministers, business leaders and academics sought to address at a forum organised by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Brussels on 29 and 30 March.
As a number of delegates pointed out, until now, cross-border flows of R&D have mainly been confined to the 'triad' of the US, Japan and Europe. Indeed, 80 per cent of overseas corporate research is currently carried out in these three regions. But according to EU Commissioner for Science and Research Janez Potocnik, this appears to be changing.
'Countries such as China, India and Brazil will introduce a new element to the internationalisation of R&D,' he said. 'According to a 2004 survey, these countries are now respectively the first, third and sixth choice destinations for new overseas R&D investments.'
Mr Potocnik marvelled at the rapid progress made by China in the space of just a few years, likening the country's R&D globalisation to that of well developed, albeit smaller, European nations. 'In principal this trend is to everyone's benefit. We need to encourage it and emphasise the benefits to countries that participate, as it is certainly preferable to protectionism.'
'But,' said the Commissioner, 'we cannot ignore the associated risks - we need to mitigate them. The asymmetrical development of international R&D could give an unfair advantage to certain areas of the world and disadvantage others. For example, the brain drain of skilled European researchers is perceived as a problem - one that is real enough to prompt action.'
Mr Potocnik offered the example of the biotech sector, where many of Europe's best biotech researchers have left for the United States, with the result that a huge gulf in the level of funding for biotech research has now opened up between the EU and US.
Europe's response, believes the Commissioner, must be to maximise its attractiveness as a location for private research investment. 'This will require a broad policy mix, encompassing various fiscal incentives, improved framework conditions, qualified human resources, effective intellectual property regimes and basic and applied research infrastructures. Progress is slow, unfortunately, and needs to accelerate - especially in Member States,' he said.
Europe must also step up mutually beneficial research cooperation with both developed and emerging economies, which Mr Potocnik argues will help to improve EU competitiveness and attract the best researchers to this continent.
Having earlier lamented the exodus of high quality European researchers to other parts of the world, notably the US, a delegate from South Africa asked Mr Potocnik how Europe's desire to attract the best international researchers to its shores could be considered 'fair'. 'Mobility is good, but brain drain is bad, to put it very simply,' he responded. 'The EU is keen to promote international mobility. So, for example, when a researcher from a developing country comes to work in Europe, the final year of EU funding is used to fund work in their own country - we want them to return home!'
The Commissioner's argument was supported by comments from the director for bilateral affairs in Hungary's National Office of Research and Technology, Andras Roboz. 'Mobility is a concept that we need to promote. Brain drain itself is not a major problem, but a lack of opportunities to return are.' Yet even in the case of researchers who leave their home countries never to return, Mr Roboz sees a potential benefit: 'These researchers can be very useful for building networks in their host country.'
While there may be certain trends in the internationalisation of R&D that its policy makers would like to reverse, many regard Europe as being well placed to take advantage of the increasingly cross-border nature of scientific endeavour. After all, for more than two decades the EU has promoted international research cooperation among its Member States through the framework programmes. If any region of the world knows how to extract maximum benefit from scientific collaboration, the argument goes, it should be Europe.
Commissioner Potocnik appears to agree: 'The challenges facing humanity are increasingly global, and we need to find ways of addressing them through a coordinated approach. The internationalisation of R&D can bring responses to these challenges. It's true that there are risks inherent in that approach, but there are far more opportunities,' he concluded.