European Science in the 21st Century: The View From the Lab Floor

What qualities are needed to survive in the competitive research environment of early 21st century Europe? When more than 150 European postgrads and postdocs met at a satellite meeting of the 27th Federation of European Biochemical Societies (FEBS) conference in Oeiras, Portugal, last month there was an air of pessimism. The talk at a round table session on "Opportunities for Young Scientists in a Near Future" concerned young scientists' poor pay and indifferent working conditions. And yet, individually, many young researchers remain highly motivated, and they often do great work. Nonetheless, a willingness to travel seems to be as important an attribute of the European scientist as an inquiring mind when it comes to building a career today.

Claire Lesieur left her native France first to study for a Ph.D. in Switzerland and then to take up a postdoctoral position at Bristol University in the UK. "I chose to travel because I had lived over 20 years in France, and I wanted to see what the rest of the world was like," she says. "France is a perfectly good place to do research--in fact in some ways it is better than in the UK. Scientists [in France] are less dependent on short-term grants, so they can take more risks in their research." Nevertheless, she greatly enjoys the interdisciplinary atmosphere of her lab in Bristol, where she is studying the protein that is responsible for the toxicity of cholera, which is still a serious health hazard in much of the developing world.

Claire is now planning to travel further afield, as her husband recently accepted a permanent job in Singapore. She is not hopeful that she will be able to find a suitable job there quickly. "I am looking for an intermediate level position, and most of the opportunities for Western scientists to work in Singapore are suitable for young postdocs or senior scientists," she says. Furthermore, few of the European grant programmes that encourage mobility between countries cover East Asia.

Travel closer to home can also be restricted. One Portuguese postdoc who is hoping to move between two labs in the UK cannot find a suitable fellowship, even though the lab he hopes to join is one of the world's most prestigious in his field. "It would be much easier if I wanted to move back to Portugal, or to a third EU country," he told the round table.

Structural biologist Gregory Verdun, also from France, had no choice but to leave his homeland to study for his Ph.D. In France, Ph.D. places are awarded on a points system, and he was ranked just below the line. He obtained his present position in Groningen, the Netherlands, after posting his CV on an electronic bulletin board maintained by British research councils. During his 4-year Ph.D. he has been studying part of a protein complex that transports glucose into cells. He has had an excellent Ph.D. experience, enjoying a good relationship with his supervisor. "My professor wants his students to be independent, but will always help out if he is needed," he says. However, the round table heard that not all Ph.D. students are so fortunate. For example, although the Dutch Ph.D. system requires each supervisor to produce a "plan of supervision," this regulation is not always adhered to.

The students and postdocs who work in international research institutes may be some of the most fortunate in Europe. Peter Duchek, a Ph.D. student from Austria, is at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany. "It is easier to start a new job in a new place when there are about 40 other students from all over Europe doing the same thing," he explains, "and the international nature of the programme is also very important to me." Working in Pernille Rorth's developmental biology group, Peter has discovered Gurken, the gene that guides one part of the cell migration that occurs during the development of the Drosophila egg. Perhaps the major advantage of this studentship is that "Competitive Ph.D. programmes like the one at EMBL pay much more money than those at universities." But, even EMBL-funded Ph.D. students have some financial concerns. "When I finish my Ph.D. at the age of 30 I won't have paid a single cent into any pension scheme, which worries me a bit," adds Peter.

What constitutes a living wage for a Ph.D. student varies widely across the continent. Ten years after the fall of Communism, most students and young researchers in Eastern European countries are still struggling. The average stipend of a graduate student in Poland or Hungary is only about $200 a month--"as one example, our students cannot even spend 2 weeks of their summer vacation at a Hungarian resort," explains Csaba Söti,a young lecturer at Semmelweis University in Budapest, Hungary. Söti knows that he is fortunate to work in a relatively well-funded department, although it lacks the "big and costly instruments" found in equivalent labs in the West. His group leader, Peter Csermely, has an internationally competitive group working on chaperones, the proteins that help other proteins to fold.

The "brain drain" of scientists from Hungary--and many other European countries--to labs in the United States is continuing into the new century, but Söti does not want to join it. "Our family and friends are in Hungary, and I would like to conduct high-level research there." He has previously spent several short periods working abroad, and he would like to develop more collaborations with Western laboratories, although he appreciates that these depend on the continuing development of Hungarian science.

But it is not only in Eastern Europe where scientists find that there is a conflict between research and family ties. Margarida Archer, a postdoc at the Instituto de Tecnologia Química e Biológica in Lisbon, Portugal, is managing to combine structural biology research with bringing up a young family: She expects her fourth child in the autumn. Not surprisingly, she would be unwilling to uproot her family and move to a different country in order to improve her career prospects. She has also experienced other more systemic problems: "Until 2 years ago, maternity leave was treated as sick leave, and women researchers in Portugal did not receive payment during the period when they stayed at home with their babies."

The experiences of these young scientists may be diverse, but they all share one concern: the limited number of opportunities higher up the ladder. Encouragingly, many scientists at the beginning of their careers still value the opportunity to work with talented researchers who, as Söti says, "show, by example, how to live as a scientist," above the more tangible rewards enjoyed by their contemporaries in the commercial sector, and they are prepared to travel for it. But the problems loom increasingly large in the minds of experienced senior postdocs, who have reached an age when families, mortgages, pensions, and the whole "work-life balance" become important issues. If we seriously want more of these highly trained young people to become "old scientists" and to remain in Europe, funding agencies will need to think of more imaginative ways of bridging the gap between the postdoc and group leader levels.

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