11 Oct 2007   |   Viewpoint

Europe’s Nobel week

Despite the Nobel-induced champagne now flowing in Berlin, Jülich, Paris and Cardiff, the fact remains that Europe has a fundamental problem in the quality of its science.

Science|Business Editor and CEO Richard L. Hudson

This article first appeared in The Wall Street Journal Europe, 12 October 2007.

BRUSSELS -- If you like sports or science, this has been a great week for Europe.

It began with France defeating a seemingly invincible New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup. And it’s ending with a string of European victories in the Nobel arena, with two Germans, a Frenchman and a Brit dominating the 2007 prizes for physics, chemistry and medicine. The physics award was especially impressive. It turns out that a discovery by Germany's Peter Grünberg and France’s Albert Fert in solid-state physics paved the way for what is now the Apple iPod and other hyper-miniaturised computer gadgets. So much for the pessimists who said Europe was out of the game, right?

If only it were so simple. The Nobel Prizes, like Olympic medals, are a good measure of a nation’s top talent – but only if averaged over many years, through a rear-view mirror. The winning lab work of the European laureates was actually performed between the 1960s and 1980s. And despite the champagne now flowing in Berlin, Jülich, Paris and Cardiff, the fact remains that Europe has a fundamental problem in the quality of its science. Sure, it has some great individual scientists. But as Janez Potocnik, the European Union’s science & research commissioner, says: “Europe has a team of star players, but it is not a star team.”

Enough with the sports metaphors. Let’s look at the facts:

Nobels: Europe used to be tops. From 1901 through 1950, 73 per cent of the Nobel Prize winners were based in what is now the EU. Over the next half-century, that share dropped to 33 per cent. In the opening of this new millennium, including this year's winners, the EU is down to 24 per cent. The dominant power, with 62 per cent so far this century, is the US.

Universities: In Europe, most are flunking. The most-watched international ranking of universities, maintained by Chinese statisticians – itself a sign of the times – places only two Europeans, Cambridge and Oxford, among the world’s top 20. In the top 100, there are 34 Europeans and 54 Americans. If you look at the data more narrowly, science-by-science, a similar pattern emerges. Only 26 per cent of EU universities score as world-class in at least one scientific discipline, compared with 81 per cent of US universities, according to a recent European Commission analysis.

Publications: At least in this field, Europe still tops, cranking out 38 per cent of the world’s scientific research papers, against 33 per cent from the US, according to the EU. But if you count how often other scientists cite those papers – a good measure of their scientific value – the story changes. Compared to the world citation averages, EU research is below-grade in 31 out of 37 scientific disciplines. Translation: Nobody cares.

A list like this could go on, mentioning low scientific employment rates, patent applications, technology exports and other indicators. But there's no need. Over the past few years, this picture of a European science base decaying from within has become established wisdom among most policy analysts.

One problem is money. The EU spends less than 1.9 per cent of its gross domestic product on R&D, compared with 2.6 per cent for the US. And it spends even less on that other main university product – education.

But money is only part of the problem. The real issue is organisation. In contrast to the glory days of Planck and Helmholtz, nowadays most European researchers are scattered all over the Continent – in small labs and minor departments. Except at the likes of Cambridge or Stockholm’s Karolinska (which names the Nobel in medicine), they lack the critical mass of money and researchers needed to excel at most sciences today.

The reason: most European governments after the war began treating higher education as a tool for regional development. Every mid-size city needs 30 post offices, a dozen factories, 50 bank branches and one small university. So the research grants have been sprinkled far and wide, like economic fairy dust.

Of course, a notable exception is Britain. But generally, according to a report by the UK-based Center for European Reform, “There is a kind of drab uniformity across the sector: many institutions are struggling to cope with growing numbers of students and inadequate resources, delivering uninspiring teaching in dilapidated buildings.” That doesn’t work. “We have to identify the top institutions, or maybe the top research groups, and focus the funding on them,” argues Konrad Osterwalder, a Swiss academic who is president of the United Nations University (and formerly of ETH-Zürich, Einstein’s alma mater). "We have to have more Darwinism in the system."

Another problem: many of Europe’s greatest research institutes are hobbled by too much government oversight. In Italy, most professorial appointments have to go to Rome for clearance. In the big state research institutes of France and Spain, the typical senior researcher is a civil servant with standardised pay, long tenure and a gold-plated pension plan. In Germany, the exhaustive and exhausting academic career track means most scientists will get gray hair before they get a professorial chair. Is it any wonder that 5 per cent to 8 per cent of EU scientists give up and work abroad? What’s needed is greater autonomy for the institutes and universities to hire, fire, promote and – heaven forfend – charge tuition so that students have a financial stake in cracking the books.

Another problem is the lack of coordination. One EU official recently counted 29 different funding programs for nanotechnology across a 27-country bloc. It turns out grant administrators chase scientific fashions – which makes for lots of duplicative grants. Among the national research programs of Europe, just 0.8 per cent of the total funding is coordinated with neighbouring countries. The upshot is that a Belgian scientist in, say, Leuven competes mainly for national funding against a rival in Ghent or Brussels. The competition would be a lot tougher – and the science better – if the contest also involved Cambridge or Stockholm, says André Oosterlinck, former rector of the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium's top-ranked univeristy. The Commission took a small step in that direction this year with the launch of the European Research Council. “It’s a good start, but not enough,” Oosterlinck says.

In fact, there are lots of small steps happening now. Berlin last year broke with two generations of political correctness and officially declared three of its universities to be better than the rest, and deserving of extra cash. Paris, under new management, pushed through legislation to give its universities a bit more autonomy – and hardly anyone protested. Even the “t” word, tuition, is no longer taboo: A recent Eurobarometer survey found 68 per cent of European educators now think some form of tuition payment is acceptable. All of which is very encouraging. But if Europe is to sustain its Nobel-winning streak beyond next week, it will need to change more, faster and deeper.

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