Battle for the brains

Home Technologist 01 Battle for the brains

Every year, thousands of scientists leave Europe for jobs elsewhere, notably the United States. The Old World is trying to get them back.

Amaya Moro-Martin had just arrived at Princeton University. “The research centre in which I was working, the Madrid Centre of Astrobiology, was emptying,” she recalled with a touch of sadness in her voice. “Most of the best Spanish researchers had already left the country or were preparing to do so.” Exacerbated by the Euro crisis and accompanying cuts in research budgets, the exodus has touched every European country.

In France emigration is increasing more rapidly than population, and involves mostly the well educated, according to a 2014 report by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Paris. “We’re seeing a veritable tidal wave,” says Vice President Jean-Yves Durand.

27,456 European “scholars” working in the U.S. (In 2008. Source: Researcher Indicators Report (Mobility patterns and career paths of researchers), IDEA Consult (2013))

The U.S. is by far the most popular destination, thanks in no small part to the high rankings that American universities enjoy in most international surveys. A stint across the pond adds value to a CV and significantly improves one’s chances of having a successful career in the highly competitive research environment.

To stem the tide, Germany created a special unit as far back as 2003 to try to repatriate its scientists working abroad. “Science is global, but when too many researchers – whose education was paid for by taxpayers – leave, something has to be done,” says Gerrit Roessler, head of the New York office of the German Academic International Network (GAIN).

58,088 Europeans working towards a Master’s or PhD in the U.S.(In 2011. Source: Researcher Indicators Report (Mobility patterns and career paths of researchers), IDEA Consult (2013))

GAIN maintains a network of German scientists in North America, organising conferences and workshops and keeping them informed of job openings back home. “We also try to send a clear message: that it’s worth it today for a scientist to return to Germany,” says Roessler. “Things have changed. Our research is less bureaucratic and better funded than before.”

Many European countries have set up similar structures. Switzerland and Austria have their scientific embassies (Swissnex and Ostina), and the UK uses its British Councils network to promote research and attract scientists. The European Union has also launched a forum of conferences and networking (Destination Europe), as well as a portal to facilitate the bureaucratic steps of return to Europe (Euraccess). In addition, universities actively recruit scientific talent at job fairs, such as MIT’s annual European Career Fair.

Money talks
These promotional activities may not be sufficient to turn the tide. According to a 2012 study by Nature Biotechnology, salary is one of the main factors when scientists choose a destination. “In Europe, professors’ salaries are often set by the government and it’s very difficult to get any leverage there, whereas U.S. universities can pay what they want,” says Roessler. The best American universities offer salaries of more than $180,000 (some as high as $700,000), compared to €90,000 ($120,000) in Germany.

31,600 Europeans with a scientific PhD employed in the U.S. (In 2008. Source: Researcher Indicators Report (Mobility patterns and career paths of researchers), IDEA Consult (2013))

Research funding also weighs heavily in scientists’ decisions. “EU grants have really changed the game,” says Jürg Brunnschweiler, director of global relations at ETH Zurich. “The Horizon 2020 programme has €80 billion in funding for the 2014-2020 period, 40 per cent more than between 2007 and 2014. This is an enormous amount, making it possible to compete with the U.S.”

The American deficit has also played out in favour of the Europeans, since the amount of funding allocated to U.S. research has been reduced in recent years. The federal research envelope fell from $40 billion in 2009 to $30 billion in 2013, with another $1.7 billion in cuts planned for 2014. It helps also that Europe has been investing in its research infrastructure. “The Large Hadron Collider at CERN, for example, attracts researchers from far and wide and is a real asset,” says Brunnschweiler.

Family matters
Family can also tilt the balance. Despite a high salary and an enviable professional position at Columbia University, German bioinformatics professor Burckhard Rost recently decided to return to the Technische Universität München. “I now earn half as much, and I have less grant money, but I wanted my son to have more contact with my family and to know Europe better.”

“Universities are increasingly developing offi­ces dedicated to family well-being,” explains Jean-Luc Barras, director of the Swiss National Science Foundation’s International Division. “They help spouses find jobs and help with issues like housing and schools.”

Another European advantage is a less onerous grant-writing process. “In the U.S., you have to write proposals for every stage of your research,” says ETH Zurich’s Brunnschweiler. “Our scientists get substantial sums of funding each year that they can spend as they see fit, to hire someone or purchase equipment, without having to submit endless proposals.”

By Clément Bürge

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