Back to the Roots: Returning to Europe From the States

M any young European scientists move to the United States, carry out successful research, and never return. How can this "brain drain" be reversed and translated into a European "brain gain"? Patrick Cramer, who recently returned to Germany from the United States, describes his experiences abroad and tells us how Europe could benefit from introducing tenure-track options.

I always felt a little more European than German and studied chemistry in Stuttgart, Heidelberg, Bristol, and Cambridge. As a Ph.D. student at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Grenoble, France, I went on to receive excellent training in structural biology. Toward the end of my Ph.D. work, I realized that one scientific problem fascinated me most: the mechanism of gene transcription.

To understand the transcription mechanism, a detailed knowledge of the molecular structure of RNA polymerase II was needed. From the literature, I understood that I could most likely obtain such knowledge in the lab of Roger Kornberg at Stanford University in California. In addition to my scientific ambitions, I felt that a successful stay in a top U.S. lab could abolish the need for a Habilitation to follow an academic career. This would allow me to reach early scientific independence. With all of this in mind, I went to Stanford as a postdoctoral researcher, supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

And I am happy to say that my efforts have paid off. I reached my scientific aims and determined the three-dimensional structure of RNA polymerase II. Our research results provide a basis for understanding transcription at an atomic level. My stay at Stanford also prepared me for scientific independence. Due to my success and the support from my supervisor, I was in the fortunate situation to have several job offers from well-known institutions in the United States and Europe.

It was time to make my choice between the Old and the New Worlds. On one hand, I had strong personal reasons for returning to Europe. In particular, we wanted our children to benefit from the advantages of the European educational system. On the other hand, I wanted to continue working at an international center of scientific excellence.

Luckily enough, I found a combination of both: a professorship at the Gene Center of the University of Munich, Germany. This brand-new professorship is similar in style to an American tenure-track position, with an evaluation after 5 to 7 years leading to tenure, which allows me to further investigate the transcription mechanism with structural biology techniques. The position is one of the very first of its kind in Germany, and the opening was announced in an international scientific journal; a search committee of renowned scientists made the selection. To make it even more attractive, the host institute made extra effort in funding the position: Rooms will be remodeled, and expensive equipment for x-ray crystallography will be provided.

I strongly believe that alternatives to the Habilitation, such as tenure-track structures, are needed to allow for scientific independence at an early stage. And here, the American tenure-track system may have advantages over a system based on independent group leaders. Group-leader positions usually terminate after 5 years in Germany (originally to prevent in-house Hausberufungen), forcing even a very successful candidate to start somewhere else from scratch. In comparison, a successful tenure-track professor can continue, profiting from all the initial efforts of establishing the lab.

Leading research institutes such as EMBL and the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) in Vienna, which are based largely on group leaders, seem to be exceptional because equipment and core facilities are available from the beginning, ensuring a smooth start. Especially in disciplines that are experimentally intense, the tenure-track approach has obvious advantages and ensures continuity during a generally very fruitful period around the age of 40. A candidate for a tenure-track position would generally have demonstrated mobility and exposure to several scientific environments before the appointment but would have a long-term perspective on his or her future career. A tenure-track professor would have all the rights and obligations of a traditional professor and would thus fully participate in shaping his or her scientific environment.

True transatlantic scientific exchange must be mutually rewarding. I would like to see more American scientists coming to Europe's top institutions for their postdoctoral training or American investigators taking independent research positions in Europe. I also wish to see many of the well-trained European scientists, who have produced excellent research work in the United States and Canada, return to Europe and strengthen research in the Old World. To this end, attractive independent research positions must be created in Germany and other countries in Europe. Finally, I wish that European universities and institutes would compete for candidates and try to attract the very best people from around the world. These people should then contribute to the necessary changes in the national scientific systems. I am confident that such efforts can ensure the vitality of the European scientific community and its ability to compete globally.

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