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After the Fall of the Wall: Science Careers in Eastern Europe

(Andrzej Sobolewski)

The Soviet-controlled governments of the former Eastern Bloc valued science and scientific research. But decisions on funding and scientific priorities were controlled by the government, and scientific importance often played little role in those decisions. Research in those countries was done in near-complete isolation from the international community. The circulation of people and scientific information was meticulously controlled, and access to training opportunities abroad, and even international research journals, was highly restricted.

The cascade of political events throughout Europe symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago this week brought great change to scientific research in the regions. Some countries ended obsolete and no-longer-sustainable research lines and opened up more promising ones. Others set science aside and focused on rebuilding governments and shattered economies. For Germany in particular, the fall of the wall led to a deliberate, organized effort to support top East German scientists and to create scientific centers of excellence in the former East Germany (more on that in a moment).

Today, the former Eastern Bloc countries are moving slowly onto the international stage. The free circulation of scientific knowledge, ideas, and people have made Eastern science much more competitive. Many countries have increased their funding for research.

But what does this mean on the ground for early-career scientists in these countries? What and where are the opportunities to do good science in Eastern Europe?

To find out, Science Careers South European Editor Elisabeth Pain talked to three early-career scientists in former Eastern Bloc countries. All of them spent time abroad during either their Ph.D.s or postdocs (or both) and later returned home. "As the stories of these three young group leaders returning to the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary illustrate, the struggles Eastern European scientists find back home depend on when they left, the country they're coming back to, and their ability to get funding. But these three young scientists share a determination to succeed," Pain writes.

Read more about medicinal chemist Kamil Paruch, physical chemist Piotr Garstecki, and evolutionary biologist Csaba Pàl in "On Going Home: Succeeding in Science in Eastern Europe."

Then Pain delves into the topic of scientific collaboration as a strategy for Eastern European scientists to boost their career prospects at home. Funding opportunities, research infrastructures, and scientific expertise vary greatly among countries of the former Eastern Bloc and even among each country's institutes. Many scientists in those countries have been able to thrive by setting up collaborations with better-resourced departments elsewhere. Increasingly, opportunities for training and scientific collaboration are available in Eastern European countries--and that's good, because today's Eastern European scientists "need to collaborate. It's a part of their education," says Maciej Żylicz, executive director of the Foundation for Polish Science.

Read more about opportunities to collaborate--and how to set up international collaborations--in Pain's article, "More Opportunities for International Collaborations in Eastern Europe." You can find summaries and links to specific programs in our resource page, "Science Training and Collaboration in Eastern Europe: Resources."

Also this week, the news section of Science features a special package on science in former East Germany. In the years after the Berlin Wall fell, the Max Planck Society seeded scientific centers of excellence in former East Germany. In a News Focus article, Science correspondent Gretchen Vogel takes a look at how those institutes have fared. Overall, the new institutes have panned out well, Vogel writes. "You can see that in some areas starting from scratch and setting up something with an international reputation really helped to put these spots on the map," says Wilhelm Krull, director general of the Volkswagen Foundation in Hannover, who worked at the German Science Council from 1987 until 1993 and at Max Planck headquarters from 1993 until 1995.

Read more about the rise of the Max Planck institutes in the former East Germany in "Aufbau Ost: Max Planck’s East German Experiment."

Then, Science contributor Andrew Curry profiles a family of scientists from former East Germany. Before 1989, allegiance to the Communist Party was the only way to advance a scientific career there. Yet biochemists Gerhard and Gertraude Hübner held firm in their beliefs--and their refusal to join the party meant, among other things, that they couldn't travel to scientific conferences and had restricted access to lab equipment. For their daughter, Dorothee Kern, the fall of the Berlin Wall meant she could follow her interest in protein folding by carrying out her Ph.D. research in collaboration with a lab in Sweden--something she could never have done just a few years earlier.

Now a professor at Brandeis University, Kern found the scientific environment much more welcoming in the United States. "The attitude in Germany was either have a family or do science," she says. "I came over here and it was the opposite. It’s really a blessing." Read more about Kern and her family in "Big Dreams Come True."

Although the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago, its impact persists, and it may take another 20 or more years for exchanges between the East and the West to become truly bilateral. When this happens, many more Western scientists will go to train in the East, choose to establish their labs in those countries, and start collaborations to tap into complementary Eastern infrastructure and know-how. Eastern scientists will be on par with their Western counterparts when collaborating or separately applying for funds.

But for now, Polish computational physicist Andrzej Sobolewski sums up best the answer to how the landscape has changed for early-career scientists in Eastern Europe: "Now, the young people can really plan their scientific career."

Elisabeth Pain is Science Careers contributing editor for South and West Europe. Kate Travis is Science Careers contributing editor for North and East Europe.

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