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Divided continent

By ANDREAS SENTKER

Science in Eastern and Western Europe is a long way from growing together.

Divided Continent© Frank Ramspott - iStockphoto.comIs excellence the wrong way to go about creating a European identity alongside rewarding outstanding performance?
It was the presumably greatest success of European academia. After years of dependence on funding programmes planned in Brussels, in 2007 researchers founded an institution that distributes money solely according to quality: the European Research Council (ERC). The Council can allocate one billion euros a year - without having to consider national interests, political strategies or the utility of the projects. The only thing that counts are good ideas. The thousandth ERC funding was awarded to German immunologist and paediatrician Erika von Mutius just late this June.

But this success also has its downsides. The work of the Council is dividing Europe as a research landscape into two parts, it became apparent this week at the Euroscience Open Forum in Turin. 96% of funding so far has gone to the 15 old EU states, only 4% to the twelve countries that joined with the EU's eastward enlargement. Are the Eastern Europeans lacking in ideas? Is excellence the wrong criterion for a research policy that aims not only to reward outstanding achievements, but should ideally also create a European identity?

Neither, says Frank Gannon, Director General of the Irish Science Foundation. It's not bright minds the Eastern European states lack, but rather the necessary infrastructure, he says. Gannon himself knows this situation from personal experience: as a molecular biologist he initially conducted research in his home country, but soon moved to the internationally outstanding European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg. Brain drain, the emigration of talent, is one of Eastern Europe's biggest problems. "We can't just sit back and let that happen", warns Gannon. "Europe can't afford not to be excellent. But neither can we afford to endanger our unity." In addition to funds from Brussels for specific research projects, in Turin Gannon demanded European funding for infrastructures in Eastern Europe. This demand was supported by Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, the former Secretary General of the ERC: "There is a joking description of the American academic landscape - two coasts connected by United Airlines. And it's true that states like Wyoming don't necessarily aspire to equal the scientific centres in California or Massachusetts. Cracow, Warsaw or Budapest on the other hand want to return to their former glory."

An upturn would not be in their national interests alone. "Small member states often have great difficulty participating in European co-operations if they lack the necessary national basis", says Margaret Wintermantel, President of the German Rectors' Conference. But Europe needs every bright mind. "80% of all researchers work outside Europe. 75% of research funding is invested outside Europe, 69% of patents are not registered here but elsewhere", says Gannon. As a research collective the continent still appears successful, he adds, but on closer inspection the quality of academic performance is gradually dwindling.

From DIE ZEIT :: 08.07.2010