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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special Issue - August 2003   
 'Let’s be proud of our researchers'
 Research: a vocation
 Choosing a mentor
 Momentum to move
 Everyday life in Japan
 Balancing the gender equation
 A boost for science
 University challenge
 Migrating to the private sphere
 The incorruptible Marie
 National associations of students, PhDs and researchers

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Title  Drawn to the USA

More than one in seven doctorates received by foreigners in the United States are awarded to Europeans. Of these Europeans, about 75% stay behind. With generous research grants, state-of-the-art facilities, an international environment and streamlined bureaucracy, America has a lot going for it.

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'The strength of the USA is us,' claims one young French doctoral student in a survey carried out by France’s Centre National de Recherche Scientifique (CNRS)(1). Edelgard Bulmahn, German education and research minister, would not argue with that. A survey commissioned by his ministry(2) indicates that of the 11 000 or so Germans who were awarded a PhD in 1998-1999, 1 000 set off to do a post-doctoral degree in the United States thanks to financing from their home country. After China and Japan, Germany is one of the principal suppliers of scientific brainpower to the United States. Between 1990 and 1998, the number of German scholars (post-PhDs, assistant professors and research fellows) in the United States increased from 5.2% to 7.2%.

After having completed a doctorate at their home university, young Europeans are often advised by their doctoral supervisor or laboratory on what direction to take for a post-doctorate. That often means North America. 

Why does the United States have such a power of attraction? The reasons are well known. 'A better salary, more stimulating research environment, personal development, the chance to perfect your English,' is how Marco Albani sums it up.   This Italian who is doing a post-doctorate at Harvard also makes the point that 'there is less bureaucracy in the US and it is possible to work independently.' 

Road to Rome
For many young researchers, the United States is a kind of initial immersion in the world of research, perhaps comparable to the trip to Rome that was de rigueur for the painters of the past. 'I often thought of the United States, especially since the most interesting researchers and teams in my discipline settled there. But I decided against it due to my family situation – I am happily married with a young child and my wife has her own career,' explains Rami Olavi Vaino, an assistant in the physical sciences at the University of Turku in Finland.

'The United States is founded on a tradition of immigration and has long facilitated the mobility of researchers. The USA is also one of the best regions in the world for scientific research, in all disciplines. I am seriously thinking of going there,’ enthuses Shuo-Wang Qiao, a Norwegian doctoral student of immunology. 

'I would like to spend two or three years there… but I would not like to spend my [entire] life there. Not because of the research environment, but because of the American way of life,' comments Fabio Monforti Ferrario, a researcher at the Italian Energy and Environmental Agency (l'ENEA) in Bologna).

Alison Lester will soon be setting off for Chicago, on a temporary mission as part of CERN's international co-operation scheme. 'I am going for one year. Until Geneva gets its new particle accelerator, the only comparable machine in the world on which I can experiment and process my specific research data is near Chicago. So, for me, this is the only way to pursue an analysis that could certainly prove useful for our work, which will subsequently continue here in Switzerland, with new detectors.'    

Money matters
Whatever the intentions and exchange systems, the figures are revealing (see box). At present nearly 75% of Europeans who complete a doctorate in the United States try to remain there (compared with 49% in 1990). Two-thirds of them soon find employment in the country. Salaries are high and there are very real career opportunities in the academic world as well as the private sector. Unlike Europe, industry is the country's biggest employer of scientists: it finances 66% of R&D and carries out an even higher proportion (74%) thanks to public contracts.  

'Europe and its researchers have ideas, but they are cruelly lacking in the financial and human resources to put them into practice,' points out Michèle Gué, a teacher and researcher at the Université de Montpellier II (FR). She draws attention to the 20th anniversary of the identification of the Aids virus by professor Luc Montaigner – who now works in the United States – and his team of six researchers at the Institut Pasteur.

'The Americans had to get out their heavy artillery – the necessary funds and more than 50 researchers – for Dr Robert Gallo.' It is certainly true that the United States does not baulk at financing research. To take just one example: the budget of the National Institutes of Health (federal institute responsible for biomedical research) doubled between 1998 and 2003. 

Each to his own
Does that mean we should imitate the United States? 'I am not in favour of a copy/paste approach to US practices. European research has its own characteristics and these should be preserved,' continues Michèle Gué, who did her doctorate in the US and spent several years there.

'One example is the ability to explore several avenues. In the case of US public research, the system of grants obliges researchers to work and publish on the very precise topic for which the grant is awarded. This is a strict rule and there is no getting away from it. In Europe, on the other hand, it is possible to pursue new lines of inquiry which may not have been envisaged at the outset. In a context where the trend is for increased uniformity, this diversity of approaches is necessary for the advancement of science.' 

(1) Erwan Seznec and Dominique Martin-Rovet, Etat des lieux 2000 sur la présence des français en science et ingénierie aux Etats-Unis – Les cerveaux, fous d'Amérique? Pas vraiment…, published by the CNRS

(2) La relève allemande aux USA, carried out by the Centre de recherche sur l'innovation et la société (CRIS).

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  Crossing the Atlantic

A question of degree... Figures on the attractiveness of the USA are difficult to compile on a consistent basis. One simple way is to estimate the number of people living ...

  Crossing the Atlantic

A question of degree... Figures on the attractiveness of the USA are difficult to compile on a consistent basis. One simple way is to estimate the number of people living in the United States with a university degree in a scientific(1) and technological field, although this does not make it possible to distinguish between different categories or between those who are there temporarily and permanently. A classification drawn up by the NSF, relating to a population of approximately 1.3 million highly educated residents, shows that, in 1999, Germans (70 000 residents) ranked third (after Indians and Chinese) and the British fifth (65 000). The latter constitute something of an elite with 20% of PhDs.

Jobs linked directly to S&T… Again, according to the NSF, in 1999 almost 865 000 people of foreign origin were employed directly in sectors linked to science(1) and technology in the USA. Of these, 87 500 were of EU origin. The British led the field (28 000), followed by the Germans (25 000), the Italians (almost 8 000) and the French (less than 3 000).

Doctorates and post-doctorates. Between 1991 and 2000, almost 15 160 EU nationals obtained a doctorate in the United States, some 50% of them in a science or technology subject, or about 700 to 850 S&T PhDs every year (see graph per nationality). Between 1995 and 2000, more than 70% of graduates with a PhD continued to reside in the USA. Three-quarters of them went on to take post-doctorates, or to embark on research or teaching careers. 

(1) In the USA, the 'science' category includes the social sciences.