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Europe’s Scientific Meltdown

After World War II, most Europeans agreed that scientific research would not only boost their economies, but also deliver greater technological autonomy from the United States and act as a catalyst for social change. The British Royal Society advocated creating the German Max Planck Society on the ground that solidarity between international scientific communities could contribute to reconciling former enemies. As a result, big projects such as the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN), the European Space Agency (ESA), and the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), were founded to help unite European research efforts in basic science.

Today, however, European science is declining in almost all countries (Sweden, Finland, and Iceland are exceptions), wasting existing talent and losing attractiveness for young people. On average, a young European scientist working in the US receives 2.5 times more research support than in Europe. No surprise, then, that a brain drain has developed. Indeed, Europe has only five scientific researchers per 1000 inhabitants, compared to eight in the US and nine in Japan. Despite its strong scientific tradition, figures for Central Europe are even worse, and the cost of EU integration is likely to further shift priorities away from science and education.

Shrinking budgets are also damaging established scientists. In the life sciences, for example, foundations find it hard to identify high-level Europeans for awards. This is not due to lower scientific quality, but to the higher levels of sustained support available to American group leaders to transform new ideas into discoveries.

Massive military and health investments by the US government have generated a critical mass of research, which in turn attracts private funding – including from European companies, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry. Something similar can and does work in Europe. In Finland, for example, ten years of sustained public funding is now catalyzing private investments and fueling regular increases in R&D budgets.