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“Wanted: more European scientists,” experts say

6 April 2004 - European governments need to act now to address a shortage of scientists that is threatening to slow progress towards the EU’s ambitious R&D goals, an expert group has urged. It called on EU Member States to take urgent action to reform the way science is taught and to invest more in public research..

the High Level Group on Human Resources for Science and Technology in EuropeNearly a year after it was formed by Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin, the High Level Group on Human Resources for Science and Technology in Europe delivered its verdict that the European scientific labour market suffers from “serious shortcomings”. To address this, European governments need to take a more active role in promoting scientific careers and in helping scientists develop their skills.

“Excellence in scientific and technological development is central to securing Europe’s future,” Mr Busquin said. “To become the world’s most dynamic knowledge-based economy… the EU must address the current shortage of scientists and researchers in Europe.”

However, the EU’s ambitions may be put at risk if the human question is not tackled. “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,” warned former Portuguese Science and Technology Minister Professor José Mariano Gago, who chaired the group.

The group found that the current annual growth rate in researcher numbers of 2.1% is not enough to catch up with the EU’s major global competitors. Although some countries, such as the Nordic nations, are making impressive progress, the Union’s biggest members are not moving fast enough. Mr Busquin stressed how important it is that Europe overcomes its “intelligence fatigue”, the slowing down of knowledge creation. “We must make science live,” he said

Although the EU produces more science and technology graduates than its major competitors, fewer researchers actually make it into the European R&D workforce owing to a transatlantic brain drain and the attraction of more lucrative jobs in management. Governments can make scientific careers more attractive by investing more in public research, which suffers from inadequate resources, salaries and career prospects.

The group – which presented its findings at a conference in Brussels last week attended by 250 stakeholders – also suggested that European universities could do with an overhaul. They should provide the diverse skills required for modern science careers instead of focusing on preparing students for a life in academia. Universities should also build partnerships with the private sector.

Tomorrow’s talent

The high level group singled out science teaching for particular attention and a major portion of its report was devoted to school education. “[The EU] 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,” Mr Busquin stressed.

The group observed that the way science is taught in school is often detached from students’ everyday lives and experiences. It recommended that science curricula need to be made more interesting and relevant to young people. European primary and secondary school students also need to acquire more hands-on experience in school labs.

The EU has already taken a number of concrete steps to spark young peoples’ interest in, and knowledge of, science and scientific careers. Every year, the EU celebrates its best young scientific talent at its Young Scientists’ Contest and the European Commission’s annual Science Week is targeted largely at youth.

A novelist once said that teaching was three-quarters pure theatre. One Science Week event, Physics on Stage, attracts thespian teachers from across Europe to exchange ideas on how to use drama, adventure, tragedy, farce and comedy in the science classroom. The Commission has also funded the development of state-of-the-art multimedia science teaching and learning tools.

More information:
Commission press release
European Science Week

Physics on Stage


last update: 06-04-2004