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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > Transferring the grey matter
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image image image Date published: 11/07/2001
  image Transferring the grey matter
RTD info 30
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  Who will the scientists, researchers, teachers and inventors of the future be? The transfer of knowledge and skills from one generation to the next is not a subject which is often discussed. But it is a very real problem for Europe, requiring a carefully thought-out strategy based on a full awareness of the facts.
   
     
   

At first sight, the demographic future could seem bright for the younger generation. With fewer of them, each individual's contribution will be worth even more. Gone will be the days when structural unemployment made it hard to enter the labour market. But could this be a simplistic view? At the brainstorming of European ministers in Uppsala (SE) last March, Lena Sommestad, head of the Institute for Futures Studies (IFS) in Stockholm, warned against naive optimism. 'Demographic change is in danger of creating a shortage of human and financial resources. Faced with growing demands from older people, society will have to make difficult choices on how it allocates education budgets. Also, as demand for labour in Europe will increase primarily in the field of personal services for the elderly, the thrust of innovation within the European economy could slow. As young people are faced with this less-stimulating and less-competitive labour market, they could be less inclined to continue their education. Such a situation would create problems recruiting young people into careers in science and technology.'

An ageing population overturns a whole lot of socio-economic and cultural data. How will it be possible, for example, to replace skilled human resources - including researchers? In the latter case, in addition to the natural shrinkage in numbers there is the added problem of the still very real attractions of self-imposed exile (see box entitled Study and career pathways).

Opening up Europe's universities

What long-term strategies could Europe develop to compensate for this shortage of young brains? Researchers at the IFS recommend a three-pronged approach.

The first could be to improve the quality of education from the earliest age. Being better prepared, students might be more inclined to opt for courses with a demanding reputation. 'Concentrating on education for children and young people is the sine qua non for a competitive economy and reduces the need for basic training programmes for adults. Furthermore, an early introduction to science and technology helps develop not only a knowledge-based society, but also a knowledge-based culture.'(1)

However, making education a priority could prove a difficult political choice in a society where the elderly are in the majority, and which may prefer to direct public money more towards health care or social policy.

The second response lies in a family policy which takes better account of the situation of young couples, including their need for housing, family benefit, etc. This recommendation is not inspired by a desire to encourage people to have more children, but to allow often well-trained young women to realise their career potential. As a corollary, this would allow research centres and industries to benefit from an often inaccessible labour pool.

The third strategy for an ageing society is to make Europe more open to students from countries with a younger age structure. Although it is the United States which has the reputation of being most 'welcoming' in this respect, Europe does not in fact compare so unfavourably: 3.7% of students in the EU are foreign,(2) compared to 3.2% in the USA. The leaders in this respect are Austria (11.5% foreign students), the United Kingdom (10.8%) and Belgium (9.8%). These numbers could be further increased by action at source. An example? 'If the population of North Africa is added to that of Europe, the combined age structure becomes much younger with a remarkably balanced population. An effective way of rendering our universities accessible to these young people could be for Europe to invest in basic, primary and secondary education in these countries.'

(1) All quotations from Lena Sommestad.
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(2) Meaning from non-EU countries.
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Internet sites

See: http://ec.europa.eu/research/pdf/keyfiguresihp.pdf

www.framtidsstudier.se


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Study and career pathways

Contrary to popular belief, a proportionally greater number of students study science subjects in Europe than in the United States and Japan. This is reflected in the degrees awarded, with 38% in science subjects in the Union compared to 30% in Japan and 29% in the US (figures for 1996-97). These percentages vary according to the particular degree and country. Between 1990 and 1997, a growing number of students in the Netherlands and Portugal obtained qualifications in S&T, compared to a slight fall in Belgium, Spain and Italy, and a marked fall in Denmark and Sweden.

Nevertheless, there are not enough skilled personnel available in Europe to fill the jobs available. This is due to the continuing 'brain drain'. Between 1993 and 1997, the number of Europeans holding teaching posts in science and technology in the US increased from 76 000 to 84 000, of which 55% were recruited by the private sector. Of these, 23% were aged under 34, and 35% between 35 and 55; 24% held a doctorate.

Pessimistic observers point to the scale of loss this represents. But the optimists point out that many of these expats return to their continent of origin at some point, bringing with them the knowledge and experience acquired elsewhere. But there must be more incentive for them to do so. The Taiwanese Government has clearly understood this. After implementing a very concrete policy, encouraging start-ups for example, Taiwan now has a 60% return rate.

 
     
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Study and career pathways

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