Election brain gain?

Some scientists think Europe can entice scientists away from the US after the Bush victory

Nov 23, 2004
Ned Stafford(scientistnews@yahoo.com)

Germany and other European countries should make the most of the results of the US presidential election to woo back researchers from America, a leading stem cell researcher has suggested.

Last Tuesday (November 16), the German business daily Handelsblatt quoted Hans R. Schöler as saying that Germany now has a "unique opportunity to keep scientists in Germany and recruit top scientists from around the world" because of the current "not exactly rosy" research and political situation in the United States.

Schöler, head of the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Biomedicine in Münster, told The Scientist that he had talked to more than 20 American researchers who were worried about the direction of American science, especially embryonic stem cell research, in the coming years under a Bush administration.

"After the election, the people I have been talking to are just in shock," Schöler told The Scientist.

Schöler believes that Germany and other European nations should try to recruit top scientists by improving the research atmosphere, which would include increased funding and loosening of restrictive embryonic stem cell laws.

Barbara Dufner, a spokeswoman for Germany's Research Ministry, told The Scientist that its position on stem cell research remained unchanged, that older embryonic stem cell lines and adult stem cells are sufficient. "At the moment, our law is okay," she said.

Dufner agreed with Schöler that Germany should try to bring German expatriate scientists back home. She said the ministry already is doing a good job of this. "I can say that in the last 2 years an increasing number of foreign students and foreign scientists are coming to Germany," she said.

Schöler is not the only European scientist to see the victory of President Bush as a possible stimulus for the departure of US-based scientists. Earlier this year, Michael J. Rennie, of the University of Nottingham's School of Biomedical Sciences, also expressed such sentiment in an interview with The Scientist.

Rennie told The Scientist this week that he stood by his earlier comments. "I'm just back from the USA, and yes, I do believe that there will be some emigration," he said.

Rennie said that universities in the United Kingdom were already contacting top US-based scientists in "hot fields" that the Bush Administration appears to have little interest in, such as stem cell and environmental research. The UK universities would be trying to sell the US scientists on the benefits of working in the United Kingdom, Rennie said.

On his recent trip, Rennie said, scientists in Toronto said they were expecting to hear from more and more US-based scientists about job possibilities north of the border. "They told me they would now be able to recruit US-based scientists," he said.

Rennie said that scientists he met expect funding for research to grow even tighter in Bush's second term because of deep tax cuts and the cost of the war in Iraq. "The people I talked to felt very depressed at the thought of another four years of Bush policy," he said.

Carl Johan Sundberg, vice president of Euroscience, also told The Scientist he agreed in general with Schöler's comments. "I have spoken with a few [US-based scientists] after the election, and, of course, there is a concern with the way the Bush Administration seems to view science, its philosophy of science, the way science is to be used," he said.

Sundberg's view is that American researchers think conducting embryonic stem cell research will also become increasingly difficult under the Bush Administration. "I have been told there will be less willingness to support embryonic stem cell research," Schöler said.

Schöler acknowledged that the passage by California voters of a $3 billion measure to create an Institute for Regenerative Medicine based on embryonic stem cell research was a positive signal. But he said US-based scientists he has talked with are uncertain of the institute's future. "Nobody knows how it will develop in California," he said.

Sundberg, who also is head of the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, said that some disaffected US scientists might end up leaving for Canada, Europe, Australia, or Asia.

But moving abroad would be extremely difficult for most American scientists, he said. "They would maybe want to leave, but when push comes to shove, I am not sure they would do it," he said, adding that US-based scientists from overseas, especially those form non-European nations, would be more likely to make the move.