Brain drain? What brain drain?

Not all German scientists agree there's a problem with researchers abandoning Europe

Dec 23, 2003
Ned Stafford(scientistnews@yahoo.com)

Some in Germany's scientific community appear to be stifling yawns as EU officials continue their loud warnings that scientific “brain drain” is on the rise and a threat to Europe's knowledge-based economy.

“I would not say it [brain drain] is a major problem,” Barbara Dufner, a spokeswoman for Germany's Federal Ministry of Education and Research, told The Scientist.

And Beate Scholz, program director for research careers at the German Research Foundation, told The Scientist she was “a bit skeptical “ about the alarm bells sounding about German brain drain.

In a recent continuation of its campaign to raise awareness of European scientists leaving for greener pastures, the European Commission in late November issued two new reports on Europe's position in research and innovation.

The commission said that “the growth rate of investment in the knowledge-based economy is declining; the R&D investment gap between the EU and the US is increasing in favor of the US, and 'brain drain' is on the rise.”

The commission warned that about 75% of EU citizens who obtained doctorates in the United States from 1991 to 2000 “had no specific plans to return to the EU.”

The most important reasons keeping EU-born scientists and engineers abroad relate to the quality of work. The European Union even sponsored a conference on brain drain last week in New York to announce measures designed to attract researchers to Europe and to keep talented scientists from leaving.

Dufner said it was nearly impossible to know the number of German PhDs who go abroad and do not come back home. That is partly because the number is always changing.

She agreed that it was important to make improvements to Germany's university system in order to make Germany more attractive to young PhDs. But she downplayed brain drain as a major problem for Germany. “I would say we need to watch out for it,” she said. “But it is not as bad as some people think.”

She said it was natural that some German scientists would go abroad to work. But she said that Germany also attracts scientists, noting that one ministry study puts Germany at number three in attracting foreign PhDs behind the United States and the United Kingdom.

“This is globalization,” she said. “It is normal that some young [German] scientists go to other countries and that some come to Germany. It is just an exchange.”

It's good for Germany if some of its younger scientists study abroad, she said, but was quick to add: “We want them to come back.”

Scholz said that a “certain number” of German PhDs do stay in the United States and that this should be viewed with concern. But she said she was dubious about allegations that brain drain from Germany is on the rise.

She agreed that during the late 1990s, the allure of the United States was strong for young German and other European scientists. But she said Germany and other European nations noted the problem and have already begun to make improvements to the scientific and university systems. She said one example of attempts to keep young scientists in Europe is the European Young Investigator Awards.

“I think we would have had a [brain drain] problem if we had not reacted,” she said.

If there is a brain drain problem in Germany, Scholz said it is more likely an issue of the quality of young scientists leaving Germany and not the quantity. She noted that US universities and institutions would tend to make the most attractive offers to the best scientists.

On the other hand, Jürgen Soll, chair of plant biochemistry at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, told The Scientist he still views brain drain as a major problem for Germany, saying that major changes in universities are still necessary.

“I think research opportunities at US universities are generally more attractive than in Germany,” he said. “The German system is highly regulated. You need permission for about everything you do.”

Soll, who did postdoctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley, recently was one of 11 winners of the 2004 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, Germany's top research prize.

The Leibniz Prize program was established in 1985 mainly to provide incentive for top German researchers to continue their work in Germany. Most of the 11 prizewinners received research grant awards of €1.55 million, but Soll shared a prize and received €775,000.

Asked why he came back to work in Germany, Soll said: “I am European. I would not want to live in the US forever.” He then added: “But I know Germans who love it there.”