An Ambitious Effort to Plug Europe's 'Research Gap'

Brian O'Neill

At least since the Lisbon strategy was adopted in 2000, the people who hold the purse strings of European science have been trying to figure out how to convince ambitious and successful researchers at the start of their independent careers to put down roots in Europe rather than North America. "This is our biggest gap," says Fotis Kafatos, a molecular biologist at Imperial College London, U.K., who directs the European Research Council (ERC). "Our best and brightest too often do their last postdoc abroad and never come back. We need to offer something that can compete."

One answer came from the European Science Foundation (ESF) in 2003: Offer 25 early career researchers each year the monetary equivalent of the Nobel Prize, up to €1.25 million over 5 years, to cover salary and all the costs of establishing themselves in Europe. Thus the European Young Investigator award (EURYI) was born. Now in its third year, the EURYI program has made awards to 75 researchers across Europe.

Next year, the ERC will launch its own young investigator award scheme, which will dwarf the ESF effort and almost every other award for early career scientists. ERC's award will be even richer than the EURYI awards, and the council plans to offer as many as 250 of them annually. "It's no secret," says Kafatos. "We want to make Europe the top choice for young scientists. Our economy depends on it."

The EURYI awards

"The evaluation process is quite tough," says Frank Keppler, an atmospheric chemist who won a EURYI award this year. Applicants must first make the cut at the national level, and then at the Europe-wide level, in order to qualify for an interview and the final round of competition.

But first, applicants must find a host institution in a European country. Almost all European research institutions are eligible; only a few, such as CERN and EMBL, are disqualified because they are internationally funded. Applicants can be of any age and nationality. The only requirement is that they must have defended their Ph.D.s no more than 8 years ago--although allowances are made for maternity leave and illness.

Keppler chose the Max-Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany, as a home for his 5-year research proposal. He then submitted it to the German Science Foundation (DFG) to compete against the rest of Germany's applications. When he made the cut at the national level, his application landed on a desk at the ESF, along with nearly 500 others from across Europe, to be evaluated by experts in what the ESF calls 6 "broadly based disciplinary panels." Keppler made it past the pen-and-paper peer-review stage, so he was invited to Brussels for an interview. Sixty people walked through the door. Twenty-five--including Keppler--went home with EURYI grants.

The benefits

€1.25 million is a lot of money for any scientist--although, of course, it is likely to seem bigger to a theoretical physicist who does most of her work on pen and paper than to a molecular biologist who needs to buy expensive enzymes and equipment. The grant can be used for anything except big expenses such as building a new laboratory or buying a supercomputer--those infrastructure costs are the responsibility of the host country and are built into the proposal. It is up to the applicant and the host institution to agree on the infrastructure requirements.

But money is only part of what makes a EURYI award useful, says Brian O'Neill, a climate scientist at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria, who was one of the first EURYI winners 3 years ago. "The prestige has certainly helped me establish myself in the field. It gets you noticed," he says. It isn't quite the Nobel Prize, but EURYI winners do become minor celebrities. "It has already changed my academic life," says Juha Pakkala, an archaeologist at the University of Helsinki. In the 2 months since his EURYI award was made public, Pakkala has been interviewed frequently by newspapers and television.

Chichung Lie, a cell biologist at the National Research Center for Environment and Health in Munich, Germany, and another of this year's winners, expects the boost in his profile to "encourage young scientists to pursue their Ph.D. studies or their postdoc with me." It may also, he says, "help our group to join collaborative networks which tend to include the already established scientists but not the junior research groups." All of which matters, he acknowledges, only to the extent that it helps him get the work done: It's publishing papers that ultimately counts, Pakkala says.

Another boon of the award is the stipulation that winners must do no teaching or administration during the grant period, allowing them to focus solely on research. This, together with the funding, means that they can focus all their attention on establishing a research program. Having "stability for 5 years to pursue a high-risk project in detail" is a rare luxury, says Lie.

The long-term outlook

It remains to be seen whether the EURYI awards, or the parallel effort by the ERC to be announced next month, will stem Europe's brain drain. The awards provide no guarantee of a permanent position, although they do "create an internationally competitive research group, and therefore increase my chances of obtaining a position in the European research area," says Lie, a German whose parents are Chinese immigrants. If Europe really wants to retain its growing flock of award-winners, "it will be very important to offer attractive and flexible working conditions to keep scientists in Europe long term," he says.

For their part, the EURYI and ERC administrators say they are taking the long view. "We just want to attract the talent," says Kafatos. "And we're open to anyone from any country. We don't want to be Fortress Europa." O'Neill, an American who, when he applied, was at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, is an example--if a rare one (see the related article in Science ). "If you come from outside Europe, the most difficult thing is to find a host institution," says Ulrich Pfeifer, a German physicist who is using his EURYI award to move from the IBM Watson Research Center in New York to the University of Siegen in Germany.

O'Neill hopes more Americans will follow his lead and that the ESF and ERC will encourage it. "I think getting foreign researchers to Europe for 5 years is a good goal even if they leave right away. It can't be anything but good for scientific integration over the longer term, and that is a benefit to both sides, even when they view it from the narrower perspective of aiming to produce the best science within their own regions." Kafatos agrees with this view. Even if it becomes clear years down the line that most foreign winners end up going home, "we will not bind researchers to Europe," he says.

The exact details of the ERC young investigator award scheme will be announced by the end of the year, says Kafatos, "but I can already say that it will not be exactly like EURYI." For one thing, the application will be streamlined. Researchers will send proposals directly to the ERC, he says, where they will be judged by "20 panels of mixed experts that cover all fields from humanities to life sciences to engineering." A fraction of those will then be invited for interviews. Between 200 and 250 will be awarded. Kafatos says the ERC grants will be slightly larger "with the average being €1.5 million." Otherwise, the award and process will be similar to EURYI, open to young investigators from all disciplines and any country. The fate of the EURYI program is yet to be determined, although it is guaranteed funding for 5 more years.

The new class of EURYI winners, gathering in Prague, the Czech Republic, for the 13 October award ceremony, are all Europeans. Few foreigners even applied, says Neil Williams, the EURYI administrator. Pfeifer chalks it up to personal preference: "Either you like the European lifestyle, or you don't."

John Bohannon, a regular contributor to Science, writes from Vienna.

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