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Research & Development - USA vs Europe
January 19, 2004

I have been closely following the research & development policies both in USA and Europe (especially the 6th Framework Programme) for a while.

Last week, I read an interesting article in TIME about the comparison of R&D activities in the States and Europe. There were also some interesting reasoning about why young scientists prefer to work in USA instead of Europe.


In 2000, US spent 287 Billion EUR on research and development, 121 Billlion EUR more than the EU. US has %78 more hightech patents per capita than Europe which is especially weak in the IT and biotech sectors.

Some 400,000 European science and technology graduates now live in the US and thousands leave each year. A survey released by the European Commission found that only %13 of European science professionals working abroad are currently intend to return home.

In 1950s and 1960s, US poured billions into defense related research and created magnetic clusters of scientific excellence, staffing them with world's best minds. America's investment laid the foundation for the tech booms of the 1980s and 1990s which drew yet more entrepreneurial Europeans.

Europe's bureaucracies, rigid hierarchies and frustrating scientific fragmentation also pushed people away.

Europe does have world-class research centers such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva where the WWW was invented and the Heidelberg based European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) where 1995 Nobel laureates Eric Wieschaus and Christiane Nusslein Volhard did their fruit fly genome research.

In Europe, control is centralized and researchers must run a bureaucratic obstacle course whether to buy expensive equipment or basic office supplies.

No single European country has the brain power or the financial resources to challenge America's scientific preeminence so the EU is trying to develop a European Research Area - a common market for science networks, pooling strengths and raising standards regionwide.

Why They Leave

  • Inadequate resources, including poor facilities and low pay.
  • Stifling bureaucracy especially in Germany and France, hurts efficiency.
  • Better career opportunities abroad.
  • Europeans fill academic postdoc jobs that Americans shun in favor of industry.

  • What May Lure Them Back

    Higher funding. The European Commission is spending 17.5 Billion EUR on R&D from 2002 through 2006. Critics often contend that EU funds are often doled out by bureaucracts who prioritize social and geographic factors over science.

    More meritocracy, replacing the traditional hierarchical model.

    Stronger pan EU networks, especially through a European Research Council.

    Money is the real point. Europe has been weaker because it hasn't invested enough. Only Finland and Sweden have reached EU goal of spending %3 of GDP on research. For the whole union to hit the target by 2010, R&D investment must grow by %8 a year nearly twice the %4.5 annual increase recorded since 1997.

    It's not happening. In Italy public research spending has fallen over the past decade.

    Industry is an essential source of funding though in 2000 EU firms spent 79 Billion EUR less on R&D than US companies. Germany lacks a clear legal framework for donor recipient relationship.

    The Culture of Competitiveness

    No amount of funding can buy a culture of competitiveness. And if researchers don't see opportunities for reward they'll take their talent to the States where innovation and hard work are rewarded with generous grants full credit and a financial stake in your work. People tend to be more enterprising because they have to be. Otherwise they're out of business.

    European researchers want increased funding, more promotion of science in society and better incentives for businesses to invest in research.

    Another step in the right direction would be the formation of an European Research Council (ERC). An expert group convened by the Commission concluded last month that new European approaches to strengthening research are urgently needed including a publicly funded science driven body to support research.

    There is a need for competitive funding scheme independent of national interests. To define excellence you need competition on European level that is supporting basic research.

    If these measures are not taken, Europe will neither be able to lure back its talented scientists nor it will be able to close the deficit of 700,000 researchers required to make Europe the most competitive economy by 2010.

    © 2004 Ilker Atalay
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