DEVELOPING RESEARCH ENTERPRISE IN EUROPE | January 19, 2004 Issue - Vol. 82 Issue 3 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 82 Issue 3 | p. 61
Issue Date: January 19, 2004


Moving beyond today's barriers holds great promise for tomorrow's European R&D
Department: Government & Policy

When the Italians set about building their embassy's new chancery in Washington, D.C., in 1996, the project threatened a hasty terminus to Lover's Lane in the nation's capital. But, in a bow to amore, the Italians granted an easement of the affected parcel to the U.S. National Park Service. Lover's Lane is open to traffic, and a security fence for the new building has been discreetly moved aside.

Would that lowering fences and bringing people together be such an easy and agreeable task in Europe itself, especially for the purposes of scientific research. As member states of the European Union (EU) continue to search for pathways between and among a multitude of social, cultural, and linguistic barriers, frictions inevitably arise.

This was evident at the Italian embassy recently as it hosted a daylong workshop on the transatlantic mobility of researchers. At the time, Italy held the six-month term of the EU presidency.

In essence, the workshop dealt with fundamental issues that Europe faces as it attempts to fashion a continent-wide R&D infrastructure: How does Europe keep the scientists and engineers it trains? How does Europe attract world-class talent in science and engineering? And how can Europe foster scientific collaborations that help build a more robust R&D enterprise?

At times, the sessions became rather heated as various factions voiced strong sentiments. They debated whether EU bureaucrats in Brussels were doing enough, whether members of the science establishment in member states were too hidebound to make necessary changes, or whether European scientists who are living and working elsewhere are too quick to criticize from their comfortable perches.

By some measures, it seems almost speculative to talk about EU science and engineering. As George H. Atkinson, science and technology adviser to the secretary of state, pointed out at the workshop, 95% of funding for science in Europe is still "in country."

With few exceptions, European scientists, particularly new Ph.D. recipients, are likely to seek science careers outside Europe. In fact, Atkinson said, some 75% of European science Ph.D. recipients have done some substantial part of their graduate work in the U.S., and many in that group do not return to Europe.

"Europe has not really fully invested in making science attractive for young people from the U.S. to go there," says Randolph S. Duran, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and a workshop participant.

Duran says that is unfortunate. He directs a National Science Foundation- and French government-funded program for undergraduates in which students are treated like graduate students. The goal of their immersion program is coauthorship of a publication. He says his program and others like it profoundly affect the students' worldview and benefit home institutions, for example, by increasing the number of foreigners who, in turn, visit them.

"Europe is a bunch of individual places that are massively approaching one another," Duran says. And it is that effort that is noteworthy. If Europe manages to pull it off--who knows? Today's collection of science provinces could become tomorrow's global R&D juggernaut.

But European research is still largely a concept on paper. Programs that seem to hold great promise for linking member states in terms of science and technology include the European Research Area (ERA) concept and the proposed European Research Council (ERC).

ERA is conceived as a common-market approach to science and technology. It is a concerted effort to link institutions and people, to remove barriers to mobility, and to establish a transnational mind-set.

ERC is envisioned as the European equivalent of NSF. With a budget goal of 3% of European gross domestic product by 2010 to fund R&D, some observers see it as perhaps the only way for Europe to begin to fund the kind of research activity that might turn today's situation around.

"Things are changing, but it will take time," says Jean-Luc Brédas, another workshop participant and professor of chemistry who holds joint appointments at Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, and the University of Mons-Hainaut, in his native Belgium.

Brédas says ongoing barriers to progress must be addressed, including making retirement and social security programs portable for European researchers.

Likewise, he says, universities in Europe must be given the flexibility to attract top research talent. That is, they must not be beholden to arbitrary pay scales but be able to reward the best and brightest and be held accountable for those actions, too.

The U.S. has a highly mobile workforce and tenure track, says George M. Whitesides, a chemistry professor at Harvard University who headed a study panel to assess chemistry in the U.K. (C&EN, Feb. 24, 2003, page 36). "Both issues are less the case in Europe. It's still fragmented."

Though love and scientific research are very different, it seems that the Italians have the right idea in both instances. People ought to be brought together whenever possible and desirable. Nobody can really predict the outcomes, but the possibilities are stirring. When fences are set aside, who knows where the path might lead?

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