Netherlands EU Presidency – Brain Gain Impasse

What has Europe achieved in the field of scientific careers while the Netherlands has held the European presidency? As the presidency stick is handed over to Luxembourg, there is a clear answer: the number of advances in scientific career development during the Dutch presidency of the European Union (EU) has stopped at zero. Yet, even if there haven't been any real changes for the better, career development in science and technology hasn't been totally overlooked during the Netherlands' term at the helm.

Within Europe, everyone agrees that careers in scientific research should be exciting enough to attract and keep young talent. In Lisbon in 2000, the European Commission decided that Europe ought to become the most dynamic knowledge economy in the world. Their plan for achieving this goal was the so-called "Lisbon strategy" which called on European countries to spend no less than three percent of their gross domestic product on research and development (R&D) starting no later than 2010. If this goal is to be met, analysts conclude, Europe will need at least an extra 700,000 researchers. No wonder policy makers are serious about the importance of making careers in science more appealing.

But are they serious? It takes quite a lot of time, apparently, for Europe to really get down to business. So far there is little measurable progress. Last autumn, during a conference on "brain gain" in The Hague, Netherlands' Minister of Economic Affairs Laurens-Jan Brinkhorst provided an explanation for Europe's slow progress. A worldwide "battle for brains" is going on, he said, a raging fight to attract the latest knowledge and the best scientists to the world's most developed (and most rapidly developing) economies. According to Brinkhorst, Europe doesn't look good compared to, say, the United States and Japan. The countries of the European Union have on average around 6 researchers per 1,000 workers in the labour force; the number is 8.1 in the U.S. and 9.1 in Japan.

Of the extra 700,000 researchers that Europe needs, the Netherlands is expected to deliver a mere 30,000 to achieve the Lisbon objective. Yet when you consider that the Netherlands currently has only 30,000 researchers working in the private sector--and that increased R&D investments depend mainly on industry--it becomes clear that the Netherlands has plenty of work ahead of it. Most other European countries face similar challenges.

The EU countries now realize that it is impossible to win the battle for brains with European talent alone, because the number of people with a higher education is insufficient. That is why finding ways to recruit research talent from outside the European Union was the thread throughout the brain-gain conference. The conference took on issues like selection procedure for non-European knowledge workers and European brain gain versus brain drain in other countries. These are genuinely important issues, but for European scientific talent with an urgent need for a better career outlook, they are not the most important ones.

Facing challenges

Strangely enough, as Brinkhorst noted, European universities do succeed in training plenty of researchers, even more than American universities. "But we're not able to provide the researchers with suitable jobs and a good career perspective. As a result, a lot of talent moves to the United States." A 2001 report of the European Commission (EC) entitled " One Profession, Multiple Careers", lists some of the major reasons for this lack of job opportunities in Europe.

One of the most important problems, according to the report, is the limited size of each national market for scientific personnel in Europe. As a consequence, most job-hunting scientists have to choose between leaving science and leaving home ?and the latter choice is often limited by a lack of knowledge about opportunities abroad. If a researcher would have a better view of opportunities outside national borders, she or he would greatly increase the chance of staying in scientific research long term. Yet recruitment procedures differ from country to country, and that makes it difficult for scientists to know what's out there.

In "One Profession, Multiple Careers," the European Commission describes another way that Europe differs from, for example, the United States. The division between research careers in academia and industry is rather strict in Europe. Once scientists here choose industry, they hardly ever return to academic research, and vice versa. This is partly due to the lower status of applied research in academic circles, though another cultural difference may also be important. Generally, scientists choosing industry research do so because of its focus on applications and the commercialisation of their research results. On the other hand, in academia the research itself is important, and publication records--not patents--are the profession's dominant currency. These value differences assure that there is "little interest to go from an academic environment to industry or vice versa," as the EC authors put it in "One Profession."

For all these reasons and others, research careers in Europe reach a dead-end more often than they should. That is why the European Commission has encouraged scientists in academia and industry to view scientific research as a single profession with different career routes. It's a fine--if superficial--proposal. So far, however, it has not led to any practical consequences.

Real career issues were not completely snowed under during the Netherlands' presidency. The workshops preceding the brain-gain conference included discussion of two instruments that should help create a better research environment in Europe. Inspired by "One Profession, Multiple Careers," the Netherlands raised the issue of installing a "Code of Conduct" which should standardize recruitment procedures among universities in the various European countries. Appreciation of the value of non-academic research is another of the main elements of this code. Perhaps the most important proposal for young scientists is the proposed "Charter for Researchers" which, says the European Commission, makes explicit the responsibilities of researchers and their employers and financiers. Professional issues like academic freedom and the social impact of research are important, but so are more personal issues like vacations, holidays, and good social insurances for temporary personnel.

Waving the European Flag

Will researchers ever notice any practical consequences of these well-intentioned instruments? It's hard to say. None of them have legal authority; they will be accepted by universities and funding organizations, if they are accepted at all, on a voluntary basis. Individual researchers can only wave them before employers, seeking recognition of their provisions as a way of strengthening their bargaining position and improving their own situation and that of their colleagues. They can't force anything.

In fairness, it is too soon to tell whether these proposals will amount to anything. "One Profession, Multiple Careers" is only a year-and-a-half old, and the bottom-up approach used to develop instruments like this usually takes a long time to develop, since its main mechanism of action is persuasion via discussions at conferences and workshops. If any of Europe's goals are to be met, something stronger than persuasion will likely be needed.

To its credit, the Netherlands' presidency has at least kept the discussion alive over the last 6 months. Perhaps it wasn't possible to do more in such a short time frame. By the time the time the discussion pays off, the EU probably will, no doubt, have seen even more new presidents.

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