Grassroots push to connect scientists in eastern Europe hits cash hurdles

10 May 2023 | News

Science expat networks in eastern Europe aim to turn brain drain into brain circulation, support mobility and narrow the gap between Widening countries and western Europe. But intermittent funding threatens the future of these grassroots initiatives

Photo: Czexpats in Science

In the face of decades of brain drain, grassroots movements have sprung up in eastern Europe to help scientists who have moved abroad stay in touch and encourage more international researchers to come and work in the region. But while foundations and private companies have stepped up in support, government backing has been sporadic or non-existent. 

As one case in point, the Czexpats in Science initiative, launched in 2018 by three Czech scientists working in the UK and Germany, has expanded and was able to hire employees in 2022. That was a result of winning funding from the IOCB Tech Foundation, Diana Biotechnologies, and the Bakala Foundation. It has not received any government grants.

“I think we found a niche that was not occupied by another entity, but which is very important for closing the gap between the west and the Widening countries," Czexpats director Matouš Glanc told Science|Business. “Scientists generally want to be in touch with their home institutions and home countries, whether it’s coming back at some point or staying abroad, but having a voice,” he said.

With the launch of the Widening programme under Horizon 2020, the EU accelerated efforts to help lagging member states boost their R&D performance. However, a recent EU auditor’s report said the programme is not a ‘miracle pill’, and there is a need for reforms and more investment by member states.

Taken as a whole, the Widening countries have R&D expenditures below the EU average, lower salaries for researchers, and limited transparency and funding in national research budgets. These problems have prompted hundreds of local scientists to move abroad.

This is the situation in Czechia, where although there are many talented scientists, it is still perceived sometimes as “a second league” in the EU, Glanc said. “The academic environment needs to improve. To be able to attract more talent from abroad, we need to pay better and improve fairness and transparency in the remuneration.”

As yet, the career progression system in Czechia is not fully in line with international standards. Clear selection criteria are often missing and the best candidates sometimes are not even aware of vacant posts because they are not advertised openly. This is against the backdrop that 38% of Czech scientists living abroad are planning to return to Czechia, according to a Czexpats survey conducted in 2021. Another 38% do not plan to return, while the remaining 24% are undecided.

Regardless of which way they are leaning, the vast majority - more than 80% - want to be in contact more with Czech scientists abroad, and to cooperate with scientists in Czechia. In particular, researchers want to cooperate on projects and publications, keep informal contact, prepare lectures for Czech academic institutions, and take part in mentoring students.

Czexpats in Science activities aiming to meet these demands include an annual Christmas conference, sharing best international practice at workshops, and compiling an interactive map of Czech scientific experts. The map works like a social network for scientists, allowing users to find colleagues all over the globe. To date, it lists over 270 scientists in 38 countries.

Glanc believes that supporting mobility in both directions, by helping students and scientists in Czechia to go abroad at some point in their careers, and encouraging foreign scientists to come to do research in Czechia is crucial for overcoming the gap between widening countries and western Europe. “Once the circulation of people and knowledge goes both ways equally, then there is no more gap,” he said.

Connecting the diasporas

Czexpats’ counterpart, the Polonium Foundation, connects Polish researchers from all disciplines. It was founded in 2012, holding its first conference at Oxford University. Since then, Polonium has held conferences in Berlin and Zurich and meetings in Copenhagen, Brussels, Florence, and Paris. The foundation also set up a virtual platform for online networking, indexing, and showcasing scientists.

“This provides a central location for scientists, innovators, and technology leaders to find the right people based on various criteria, such as background, discipline, geography, and grants they have applied for,” Polonium’s president and CEO Ala Santos told Science|Business.

The platform, which includes a jobs board, is particularly important for keeping in touch with a diverse pool of highly skilled and globally accomplished female scientists who may be omitted from searches due to name changes after migration.

“Through our events and research-based policy recommendations we continuously work to turn brain drain into brain circulation,” Santos said. Expats from Widening countries (especially Poland’s neighbours) are likely to study, start their own labs or work in Poland because of the geography. However, she noted that so far, “this exchange is not happening as much as it could, as there is not enough interaction and information flow between our diasporas.”

Funding is the key obstacle to such expansion, according to Santos. From its early years, the foundation has been operating with support from private institutions and some government institutions, such as diplomatic organisations, embassies, and consulates. Some support also came from national agencies, including a grant from Polish Ministry of Science and Education in 2018-2020. “But this type of funding has been decreasing, while our organisation and its needs has been growing,” Santos said. Over the last two years, the Polonium Foundation has not received any grants.

The foundation is now looking into expanding its regular fundraising efforts to philanthropy and, maybe crowdsourcing. However, without continuous support, the future of the initiative is uncertain. A lot of support Polonium receives is given for a specific activity - for an event or for a project. However, in Santos’ view, Poland and other Widening countries would benefit if there was some capital set aside for building the initiative for the long-term.

Romanian Smart Diaspora faces similar issues. Adriana Rotar, communication officer of Romania’s executive agency for Financing Higher Education, Research, Development and Innovation (UEFISCDI) said that over time, national funding programmes have been developed to attract researchers from the diaspora to Romania. Currently, there is a dedicated call for researchers from abroad who want to coordinate a research group in Romania funded under the EU COVID-19 Recovery and Resilience Plan.

However, frequent changes in government over the past decade have created uncertainties for researchers in Romania. The lack of stability in the political environment can disrupt ongoing research projects, as well as make planning long-term research initiatives difficult.

Czexpats in Science, the Polonium Foundation, and Romanian Smart Diaspora share the common goal of building connections between scientists from all corners of the world and promoting international mobility. However, without continuous funding, the long-term future of such initiatives is up in the air.

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