Plugging the European brain drain to the US

April 1, 2007
Clifford S. Mintz
Pharmaceutical Technology Europe
Volume 19, Issue 4

So what is the EU to do? It must grant its younger researchers greater scientific autonomy and academic independence.

Much has been written about the so-called 'brain drain' that has been plaguing Europe for the past decade. Brain drain is a term used to describe the loss of talented, young European scientists and engineers who are lured to greater opportunities in the US. The exodus of Europe's finest and most talented has been blamed on a variety of factors including a failure of the EU to make adequate R&D investments; outdated immigration policies; antiquated patent and intellectual property (IP) laws; and a lack of financial incentives and innovation that exist at many of Europe's top academic institutions.

Clifford S. Mintz

The brain drain dilemma has not gone unnoticed by policy makers at the European Commission. To that end, in 2001 the Commission mandated that all EU member countries should strive to spend no less than 3% of their GDP on research by 2010. Previous reports indicated that the EU spends less of its GDP on R&D (1.9%) than the US (2.8%) or Japan (3% [www.post-gazette.com/pg/03293/232608.stm]). This policy was designed to create approximately 400000 new jobs for European scientists each year (www.dse.unibio.it/giannoccolo). In 2006, the Commission adopted the use of tax incentives to favour R&D and create a new community framework for state aid to R&D and innovation. Unfortunately, only Finland and Sweden have reached the 3% GDP goal for research spending and it is unlikely that other member countries will be able to hit that target by 2010 (www.dse.unibio.it/giannoccolo). Not surprisingly, the gap between EU and US research spending continues to widen at an alarming rate.

A number of EU countries recently enacted legislation to make it easier for foreign scientists to enter and remain in countries to conduct research. Also, some EU countries now offer reduced fees, subsidized accommodations and even fast-track language courses for their foreign researchers. Although these inducements are likely to prompt an influx of foreign nationals into some EU countries, they will do little to stop the exodus of native-born scientists who typically leave for opportunities in the US.

Unlike the US, there is no uniformity among the patent and IP laws that have been crafted by different EU member countries. In general, these antiquated laws tend to financially reward individual scientists rather than the academic institutions that sponsor their work. The lack of financial incentives explains why European universities and academic institutions do not aggressively build patent and IP portfolios. This is in marked contrast with the US where academic institutions encourage patent application preparation, and cover all of the fee and costs associated with patent prosecution. In this case, patents are wholly owned by the sponsor institution and the inventors are awarded a small portion of the royalty payments that are made to the institution when a patent is licensed to a commercial entity.

The culture at many EU universities and academic institutions rewards older, established scientists. Grants and other forms of funding have often been awarded to well-known scientists with established research track records. Not surprisingly, many junior faculty members are under-funded and frequently exploited by senior researchers because they lack financial independence. Thus, it is not uncommon for junior researchers to toil for many years in suboptimal working conditions and receive little or no recognition for individual scientific accomplishments. This is in stark contrast with the situation in the US where talented, young, academic researchers are nurtured by senior faculty members and are allowed to compete for early funding to 'jump start' their careers.

So what is the EU to do? It must grant its younger researchers greater scientific autonomy and academic independence. This will encourage younger faculty members to become more competitive, which should drive greater European innovation. EU academic institutions must provide junior scientists with substantially more financial support early in their careers. Further, the salaries of European scientists must become more competitive! EU patent and IP laws must be harmonized and changed so that both academic institutions and individual scientists stand to benefit financially. Finally, all EU member countries must strive to allocate more of their GDPs to R&D to stimulate economic growth and create new jobs. The over-abundance of science jobs in the US, coupled with a shortage of qualified US scientists to fill them, is the single most powerful inducement for immigration of European scientists to the US. Until the EU addresses many or all of these issues, it is likely that the brain drain phenomenon will continue well into the 21st century.

Clifford S. Mintz is founder of BioJob Blog (USA).