Fresh warning cuts to R&D budgets could trigger EU brain exodus

07 Sep 2020 | News

University heads take the stage at ESOF to call for governments to keep investing in R&D despite the COVID-induced economic squeeze. Without sustained funding, scientists will leave the EU, they say

ESOF 2020

Researchers and university heads speaking at Europe’s premier grass roots science conference, the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF), have called on the EU and national policy makers to safeguard R&D budgets and protect the livelihoods of researchers.

The rector of the University of Bergen warned if success rates in European Research Council (ERC) competitions continue to fall, Europe could see a wave of researchers leaving for other parts of the world, with significant consequences for innovation and industrial leadership.

Dang Rune Olsen said, “There will be a serious risk of brain drain" if the ERC fails to fund enough researchers.

Olsen is part of a broader coalition pulling together to make the case for more ERC funding, after EU leaders agreed to a lower budget for Europe's flagship research and innovation programme in crunch negotiations in July. The Horizon Europe research programme will be allocated €80.9 billion (in 2018 prices), of which the ERC expects to get €13.4 billion (in 2018 prices). However, the ERC is demanding "an absolute minimum" of €14.7 billion, while hoping for a more ambitious €17.7 billion.

Research lobbies are also calling for ERC to get at least €18 billion, but member states are already working on plans to adjust the programme to fit the new budget.  That could entail paring back all Horizon programmes, or prioritising certain parts of the programme at the expense of others.

The ERC recently reported a 42 per cent increase in the number advanced grant applications it has received in 2020 to date, compared to 2019. Greater demand for ERC grants and a lower-than-expected budget means the success rate – currently standing at 12 per cent - will go down and many excellent projects will not get funded. “If the success rate drops below 10 per cent you have a funding instrument that really fails to invest in research," Olsen said. "I am pretty sure we will experience of brain drain from Europe."

Greater risk in poorer countries

 While some worry about brain drain from the EU as a whole, others are more concerned with a new wave of researchers moving from poorer to richer member states.

In Poland and other countries in eastern and southern Europe, base salaries for researchers are very low, but they get to supplement their income through projects funded by national or international agencies.

After training and working in western institutions, Jacek Kolanowski returned to Poland to work at the Academy of Sciences, where he was able to establish a research group. He says Poland is facing an outflow of skilled workers. More than 400,000 Polish nationals with higher education degrees are living and working in other EU countries. “This has not only consequences for Poland but also for EU,” Kolanowski told an ESOF panel on brain drain, organised by the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina.

Emigration is not matched by immigration or the return of expats, putting significant strain on the communities of departure, which are left short of human capital and face economic slump. Kolanowski said this trend is a significant boost to a few countries and regions in the EU which are already doing very well and are able to invest in R&D.

In addition to meagre salaries, researchers leave their home countries because they do not trust their governments and national science systems to give them enough freedom to express their talents, said Ivan Đikić a Croatian-born molecular biologist working at the Goethe University of Frankfurt and Buchmann Institute for Molecular Life Sciences. “[Researchers] want to stay in the environment where their talents are appreciated and they have a fair chance - and don’t need to fight against the system,” he said.

EU policies for researchers should focus on creating opportunities for people in the places they leave. “I really believe in brain circulation and I see a great advantage in being immersed in different environments,” said Kolanowski.  “No one should force Polish [researchers] to go back to Poland. Maybe Germans could be interested in moving to Poland,” he said.

But brain drain is not a problem only for newer EU member states. Between 2008 and 2019, some 14,000 Italian PhD students migrated abroad, according to research presented by Mario Pianta, a political economy professor at the Scuola Normale Superiore. “The aggregate numbers are worrying,” said Pianta. “A growing number of migrants [have a] university degree.”

Data from the EU’s MORE3 database tracking the mobility of researchers in the EU shows that migration has massively increased in countries hard-hit by the 2008 financial crash, as governments – Italy included - cut public research budgets. Nearly a decade of economic stagnation followed.

The uncertainty sparked by the coronavirus crisis is likely to limit mobility of PhD and postdoctoral students in Europe. “I expect to [see] a collapse in the number of international students because of COVID-19,” said Pianta. Countries with universities that rely on tuition fees from foreign students will be affected the most.

Pianta said the way is open for national governments and EU policy makers to come up with policies that create opportunities for researchers in countries like Croatia, Poland, Italy and other member states hard-struck by the crisis, which are at higher risk of being depleted of human resources.

Editor's note: This story was updated on 8 September to correct budget figures expected by the ERC.

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