Brussels, 01 Jul 2004
The notion of 'brain drain' is exaggerated, claimed participants at an international conference entitled 'brain drain, brain gain, main challenges' in Paris on 30 June. Mobility, which in science is essential, is beneficial for researchers in terms of knowledge and 'thinking out of the box' was the main message of the conference.
However, participants also insisted on the need for European countries to provide attractive career prospects to ensure that young researchers stay in Europe. Indeed, research shows that European scientists who remain outside their country for long periods represent an economic loss for their country.
'The EU is finally developing its potential in science. We should be proud but there is still a lot to do to attract and empower scientists,' said Alexandre Quintanilha, the director of the Institute for Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Porto. 'We need to move faster and more aggressively.'
At present, national and European measures aimed at helping young researchers in their career choices are focused on three axes: life-long mobility opportunities, researchers from third countries, and the return and reintegration of EU-born researchers.
The aim of the conference was to discuss how to develop attractive return programmes and expat networks for European scientists currently working outside the EU.
'Most young European researchers studying or working abroad want to return to their country,' explained Elisabeth Giacobino, director of research at the French Ministry for Research and Education. 'What is important therefore is to make the return home more attractive. Repatriation must involve not only financial incentives, but also more responsibility for the researchers.'
The problem Europe suffers from, explained the participants is the lack of career prospects. There are not enough postgraduate courses, and only a limited number of structured postgraduate programmes. Furthermore, there are often no, or an insufficient amount, of offshore activities.
'The European problem,' added Philippe Busquin, the European Commissioner for Research, 'is the lack of inter-sectoral mobility. This partitioning of our structure is a threat to our economy. Europe must broaden its vision, give a more positive image of researchers.'
Dr David Schindel, head of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Europe Office explained the major differences between the European and US approaches to science and technology. 'The philosophy in the US is to integrate education and research,' he explained. 'We have a multidimensional view of excellence and have a very flexible approach. We look for value added.'
The US approach, added Dr Schindel, is to offer researchers a large, flexible research grant. Once the funding body has established that the project is worthy of funding, it awards the grant to the researcher who can then dispose of the money as he or she sees fit. Furthermore, US universities are offered 'full cost recovery funds', a concept that has not yet reached Europe, Dr Schindel added.
Dr Jacek Kuznicki, director of the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw, who spent years in the US before returning to Poland and opening his institute, suggested that Europe should follow the US model more closely and give 'more opportunities for early independence to young researchers, more grants for hypothesis driven projects and less bureaucracy in funding and reporting.'
Antonio Giodano, Director of the Sbarro Institute for Cancer research and molecular medicine agreed, saying that the European system suffers from a problem of hierarchy which prevents the growth of young people to their full potential
The only answer is to develop interesting career prospect for scientists in Europe, said Raffaelle Liberali, Director for Human Resources, mobility and the Marie Curie Actions at the European Commission.
Rémi Barré from the French CNAM (Centre National des Arts et Métiers), emphasised this point by saying 'If young researchers leave it is because their country has nothing to offer them. How many young US scientists leave their country? Very few.'
The need to create global scientific networking was an idea repeated frequently during the conference. The 'Serve the Nation' programme of the Chinese government was held as a good example of the value of virtual networks of expat researchers. Indeed, the Association of Chinese Biologists in the US has been pivotal in the rise of the nanotechnology industry in China.
'Focusing on creativity will make Europe more competitive and will give the EU the opportunity to achieve true leadership,' concluded Mauro Ferrari, a professor at Ohio State University.