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Published: Sunday, 10/19/2003

Europe bemoans `brain drain' to America

BY MICHAEL WOODS
BLADE SCIENCE EDITOR

BARCELONA - What is the world's most valuable export to the United States?

Try scientific brainpower like the Toledo area's Maurice Manning, Sonia Najjar, Joana Chrakaborty, Jerzy Jankun, Michael A. J. Rodgers, Moira van Staaden, Pavel Anzenbacher, Jr., Gabor J. Szekely, Nagi Naganathan, Adolf Witt, Vjay Goel, Alan Pinkerton, Xunming Deng, and Mohamed Samir Hefzy.

Those Medical College of Ohio, Bowling Green State University, and University of Toledo scientists are among thousands of United States scientists who were born abroad. Drawn by better opportunities, they relocated and now their creativity helps keep the United States No. 1 in world science and medicine.

European concern about an American “brain drain” has been simmering since the 1960s, when Nobel Laureate John A. Pople almost toppled the British government by leaving for a job in Pittsburgh.

Now it is boiling, as the European Union implements an ambitious plan to keep its “best and brightest” scientists and lure others back to their native countries.

The European Council of Ministers laid the cornerstone during a meeting here last year. In what is known throughout European science as “the Barcelona objective,” the 15 EU countries agreed to devote 3 per cent of their gross domestic product to research.

“Foreign-born recipients of science and engineering degrees from U.S. institutions are staying here because the United States is where the jobs are,” Jean Johnson of the National Science Foundation, observed after a study.

Dr. Philippe Busquin, the EU's science research chief, believes that Europe should be No. 1 in science, noting its educational prowess.

“Europe is the world's biggest brain factory,” Dr. Busquin said.

About 2.14 million EU students got university degrees in 2000, more than the United States (2.07 million) or Japan (1.1 million). More EU degrees (26 per cent) were in science and engineering than the United States (17 per cent) or Japan (21 per cent).

The EU, however, employs fewer researchers per 1,000 workers in the labor force (5.4) than the United States (8.7) or Japan (9.7).

Measured in numbers, the transatlantic brain drain is small. Only 4 per cent of all European scientists - 400,000 out of 11 million - work in the United States.

But they are the cr me de la cr me, ranging from brilliant young students to world-renowned superstars.

NSF estimates that foreign students account for 1 out of 4 graduate science-engineering students in American colleges. They earn about 40 per cent of advanced degrees in chemistry and biology, 50 per cent in math and computer science, and 58 per cent in engineering.

More than 60 per cent of foreign-born students stay in the United States, according to NSF studies. About 15 per cent of all U.S. scientists and 17 per cent of engineers were born in other countries.

They fill positions as professors and researchers in universities, physicians in medical schools and private practice, and scientists in industry. About 40 per cent of engineering professors and 25 per cent of math and computer science professors are foreign-born.

Universities, industry, and businesses have good reason to make America the world's welcoming land of opportunity in science. They need foreign-born talent, and America's reliance on them is nothing new. “This nation has never trained enough American-born scientists and engineers,” science policy guru Daniel S. Greenberg wrote in The Scientist.

Money alone lures foreign students and scientists to the United States. The EU's low research investment means scare jobs when students finish. Scientists who seek better jobs elsewhere face other barriers that encourage emigration - old-boy networks of cronyism.

In the United States, a college degree from any accredited school is good anywhere. In the EU, credits and degrees earned in one country may be worthless in another. As part of the stop-the-drain effort, ministers agreed that universities eventually will confer degrees good throughout the EU.

Problems lay ahead, however, for the “Barcelona objective” of devoting 3 per cent of economic output to science. Only a handful of countries, including Sweden and Finland, have met the pledge. France reduced spending on research and recruitment of young scientists for 2003. Economic woes may lead others to follow suit.



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