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Europe needs more scientists: EU blueprint for action


Today a high-level expert group presented recommendations on increasing Europe’s human resources for science and technology to European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin at an international conference in Brussels. The group has identified serious shortcomings that stand in the way of increasing the number of science professionals in Europe. It calls for European governments to develop a more effective policy on human resources in science. The changing nature of the “high-tech” industries means that governments must step in to play a more active role in ensuring and promoting better resources and skills development. The public sector is under-funded and universities, in particular, should be preparing their science graduates for a more diverse range of careers. Europe’s school science education system is also failing to keep abreast of the real world of science and focuses too much on outdated notions of learning “fundamentals” and facts. To address the shortcomings outlined by the expert group report, the Commission is assessing the possibility of launching an awareness-raising campaign in 2005.

“Excellence in scientific and technological development is central to securing Europe’s future,” said European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. “To become the world’s most dynamic knowledge-based economy and to boost research investment in Europe in line with the Lisbon and Barcelona objectives, the EU must address the current shortage of scientists and researchers in Europe. It must not only retain and attract top quality scientists, but also encourage young achievers to become the next generation of innovators and inventors in Europe. Improving training and promoting career opportunities for researchers and scientists is key to this goal. The high-level group’s recommendations provide us with concrete guidelines to meet this challenge.”

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Commissioner Busquin set up the expert group, chaired by former Portuguese Science and Technology Minister Professor Jose Mariano Gago, in May 2003 to investigate ways of attracting more people to careers in science. The group has consulted nearly 300 key European institutions dealing with the shortage of skills in science. Ministers across Europe have also been consulted to determine the effectiveness of Member State, accession country and non-candidate country policies in this area. The High-Level Group’s recommendations provide suggestions to help meet the March 2002 Barcelona European Council declaration, for Europe to increase its research and development (R&D) investment to 3% of European Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2010. This is also a key element in the EU strategy identified at the March 2000 Lisbon European Council to make Europe the most dynamic knowledge-based economy by 2010.

Structural problems in the public sector

“Far from reaching the Lisbon objectives in terms of the numbers of scientists needed, Europe risks a crisis with the number of scientists sharply decreasing,” says Prof. José Mariano Gago, Chairman of the Group. As far as the number of science professionals needed to reach the Barcelona goal is concerned, the Group found that the current annual European growth rate of 2.1% is insufficient to catch up to similar levels of scientists employed in other regions of the world. Although some countries are making progress, Europe’s biggest countries are struggling to meet their commitments in terms of their overall population.

Even though it is the private sector that is the greatest employer of scientific personnel, the Group observes that European governments are failing to support the public sector, which is not as well funded as in the USA and suffers from inadequate resources, salaries and career prospects.

But it is not just a question of under-funding and structural problems: universities must provide a wide range of skills required by a large diversity of science careers instead of focussing on preparations for academic careers only.Europe needs to promote scientific careers better

The Group found that science careers in the private sector fair quite well when compared to non-scientific careers. But still, too few young people are choosing scientific disciplines at university that lead to a future career in science. More must be done to promote scientific careers. The Group calls for a new partnership between universities and industry to promote careers and a better mutual understanding. One of the ideas proposed by the Group is to provide undergraduates with a taste of a science career during their studies.

The group found that “high-tech” industries themselves were also changing. The days of centralised corporate R&D laboratories, located geographically close to the head office, are over. Industrial plants are widely distributed across the world nowadays and businesses now go where the skills are. However, countries with a highly educated workforce have a comparative advantage, so policy makers should act to support the development of skills at the national level.

School education comes under particular scrutiny by the Group and a major part of the report is devoted to this issue. School science is often detached from everyday life and work experience. Better links are needed with the real world of science. More hands-on experience is necessary especially in primary and secondary level courses, which should be designed to meet the needs and interests of young people.

The Group stresses the need to avoid elitist policies in science, while also striking a balance that promotes scientific excellence. Countries that appear to do well in terms of scientific literacy among young people and numbers of people employed as scientists tend to have policies aimed at increasing the overall performance of all school children.

Europe’s leading science and technology policy makers gathered

Today’s conference, “Increasing Human Resources for Science and Technology in Europe”, brings together more than 200 European representatives from industry and science-based organizations, as well as science policy makers. However, the conference is more than just a forum for exchanging views.

A number of the specific recommendations made today will be considered for immediate implementation through the Union’s “science and society” work programme. In the medium term, key elements will be included in preparations for the Union’s next framework programme for research and technological development.

Fabio Fabbi | European Commission
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