A Profound Tilt to the East

Reposted from Science Magazine's News Focus, 9 April 2004.

P ARIS--When Helena Illnerova talks about the future of science in her country, she sounds just like a science manager in London, Paris, or Berlin. The mantras are the same. Participation in Europe-wide funding schemes needs to increase, says the president of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. Let's make science more competitive. Ramp up international collaboration and stimulate mobility. It's easy to forget that only 15 years ago, Illnerova, an internationally known chronobiologist, had great trouble collaborating with anybody outside the East Bloc, and her mobility was, well, almost zero.

On 1 May the Czech Republic and seven other former communist nations, along with Malta and Cyprus, will join the European Union (E.U.), marking a stunning historic transition that began with the rise of Poland's Solidarity movement in the mid-1980s. Scientists across Europe are hailing this year's May Day as a milestone for science--if only because, like Illnerova, tens of thousands of scientists now have the freedom that is priceless to their work.

But amid the joy there's considerable anxiety. Illnerova and many Eastern and Central European colleagues worry that, despite painful reforms undertaken since the fall of communism, their countries may not be able to compete against vastly better funded and equipped scientists in the West. Heightening that concern are recent debates about the creation of a European Research Council (ERC) that would make quality its main criterion when doling out money, rather than, say, equity among European regions.

At the same time, researchers in the 15 current member states worry that bringing a clutch of cash-strapped countries into the E.U. will siphon money from the top-notch research that could help Europe gain a competitive edge against the United States and Japan. "That would be a disaster for Europe," says Bart De Strooper, a neuroscientist at the Katholieke Universiteit in Leuven, Belgium, who helped launch a grassroots petition last month to reform European science funding ( Science, 2 April, p. 29).

Membership has its privileges

Once the gala dinners in Brussels are over and the smoke from the fireworks has dispersed, the E.U. will have to come to grips with 116,000 new scientists within its borders --an expansion of the current workforce by about 12%. About half of the newcomers live in Poland, the giant among the new member states (see graphic). The former East Bloc countries bring with them a strong scientific tradition and a population that, according to one recent survey, has more faith than Western Europeans in science's potential to make life better. But many of the new E.U. states can barely afford to pay their scientific workforce, and science is often seen as an unattractive career path.

Poor cousins? The European Union's eastward expansion adds almost 120,000 scientists to its workforce. But this army of researchers is largely starved of resources: R&D spending in the 10 new member states falls well short of the E.U.'s average of 1.98% of GDP.


Researchers and E.U. officials are quick to point out that little will actually change on 1 May. For the scientific world, the expansion occurred in practice in October 2002, when the 10 incoming member states, along with three candidates for membership-- Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey--signed up for the Sixth Framework Programme, the E.U.'s $20 billion funding scheme for 2003 to 2006. In exchange for a fee based on their gross domestic product (GDP)--and with a discount for the first 4 years of membership --researchers in these countries have been able to compete for contracts on an equal footing with Western counterparts.

Other perks have already started to materialize as well. Over the next 3 years, each of the 10 countries will receive handsome sums from the E.U.'s so-called structural funds, which aim to boost development in lagging regions. Although not primarily aimed at science, some of the money can be used for innovation. In Hungary, for instance, a total of ?100 million will flow to science and technology, increasing the country's public expenditures on science by about 8% per year. "That's extremely important," says András Siegler, acting director of the newly established National Office for Research and Technology. Lithuania will have some ?50 million to spend on science, Latvia about ?25 million, but in Estonia, the money is mostly going for development and has little impact on science, says Estonian science minister Toivo Maimets.

Many other things have changed in the run-up to E.U. membership. For one, the majority of new member states have overhauled their often sclerotic, centrally directed scientific systems. After a recent reform of its charter, the Polish Academy of Sciences is in the process of "deeply restructuring" some of its 80 institutes and is closing down a few of them altogether, says academy president Andrzej Legocki, a plant chemist. Legocki, who spent 4 years as a researcher at various U.S. universities, says he's also trying to boost scientific output and bring down the average age of the academy's graying corps.

Estonia, too, has reformed its funding system, says Maimets, a molecular biologist who got his Ph.D. in Oxford. Quality has become preeminent, and because a tiny country can't be good at everything, there's a narrower focus on promising areas such as biomedicine--the country has entered the pilot phase of a national genetic database that could help trace disease genes ( Science, 8 November 2002, p. 1150)--and materials science. "Now," says Maimets, "we will see whether we have achieved something. Whether we can compete in Europe."

Breadth versus depth?

That's a question that all 10 new member nations are asking themselves. Although they have a smattering of scientific gems (see sidebar on p. 201), they are lagging behind their counterparts in Western Europe by several indicators--including publications and patents--according to an E.U. survey released last month. And despite offering a wealth of compelling research opportunities--such as drug-resistant tuberculosis in the Baltics (see sidebar on p. 199), the primeval forests of Poland, and the archaeological treasures of Cyprus--the ability of the newcomers to win grants in the first call of the Sixth Framework was discouraging. On average, 13% of non-E.U. scientists saw their proposals make the cut, compared to 19% of scientists from the current member countries.

The talent and money gap has prompted Framework critics like De Strooper to worry about what's next. Framework was designed to yoke science to the economic engine of Europe; as such, the program favors applied research and sprawling international lab networks that spread the wealth but create an administrative nightmare. "Framework funding is what scientists call 'funny money,' " says Ronald Plasterk, who directs the Hubrecht Laboratory for developmental biology in Utrecht, the Netherlands. "There's no clear relation between a project's quality and its chances of getting funding." Once the new countries become fully-fledged E.U. members, politicians may be tempted to slide even more research money their way, De Strooper warns, further diluting Europe's research strengths.

A widespread disaffection with Framework has helped kindle support for the creation of an ERC ( Science, 2 January, p. 23), a body that would award grants for basic research based strictly on merit. Leaders need to keep two clear but separate goals in mind, says Robert May, president of the U.K.'s Royal Society. "My worry is if you confuse the need for capacity building with the need for a merit-based European Research Council, ... you will doom the possibility of constructing a high-quality ERC," he says. "You cannot run the risk of a new European Research Council becoming a welfare project."

If the new countries were to flounder in a quality-driven competition, one alternative might be to hold a special funding round just for them, says Frank Gannon, executive secretary of the European Molecular Biology Organization in Heidelberg, Germany. Perhaps surprisingly, many in the new member states reject that idea out of hand. "We're aware that we will pay a price in the beginning," says Legocki. "But it would be very bad policy to ask for handicapped criteria. We'll just have to get more competitive." Maimets agrees. "If the quality of science in Estonia is really much worse than in Western Europe, then we'd deserve to lose out," he says. The European Commission isn't in favor of a two-tier system, adds Fabio Fabbi, an EC spokesperson.

Although Framework makes up only 5% of European science funding--national agencies pay the lion's share--the massive program sums up the challenge of weaving the research communities of the member states into a cohesive whole. The process of integration will only get harder with the addition of 10 new states that, of late, have tended to starve their scientific communities. European ministers have pledged to boost R&D spending to 3% of GDP by 2010. Many current E.U. members are nowhere near that number--Spain and Greece spend only 0.96% and 0.67% respectively, and even the prosperous Netherlands manages only 1.94%. With the new countries, the E.U. average edges down from 1.98% to 1.93% (compared to 2.80% in the U.S. and 3.06% in Japan). One advantage of E.U. membership, researchers say, is that the pressure is now on governments to make investment in science a higher priority.

But for all the talk about budgets and competition, perhaps the most precious gift of May Day 2004 is the affirmation that young researchers are free to go wherever they can carve out a niche for themselves, Illnerova says--a chance she never had early in her career. "We're finally part of a large scientific family in Europe again."

With reporting by Gretchen Vogel in Berlin, Richard Stone in Budapest, and Anna-Karin Berg, Fiona Proffitt, and Theres Redeby in Cambridge, U.K.

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