The worrying brain drain from Eastern Europe and poor participation of scientists from the region in the EU’s research projects could be reversed if the scientists were paid salaries equal to those of their Western colleagues, a paper published this week (17 April) argues.
Such a move would come at a minimal cost to the EU’s research budget but would level the playing field, allowing the East to retain and even attract talent, says the paper in Journal of Health Services Research & Policy.
“Currently, Eastern European researchers are getting peanuts for working just as hard as Londoners and Scandinavians – oftentimes on the same projects,” a co-author of the paper, Michael Galsworthy from UCL in London, UK, tells Balkan Science Beat.
“The EU needs to stop patronising scientists in poorer countries with statements about ‘laggard’ countries and ‘not compromising excellence’ and offering charitable ‘structural funds’ as if it were a bonus, when in fact it masks underpayment,” he says.
“Rather, they should let the system be truly borderless and competitive – salaries included. That is what will provide fair competition, fire appetite in Eastern European science, stop brain drain, make the environment attractive, allow build-up of talent and ultimately make the difference.”
So far, researchers had to use local salaries when writing funding proposals – so, for example, the take home pay of a scientist in Slovenia would only be a third of that of their colleague in London working on a same project.
This pay difference is presumed to reflect living costs, but this is simply not the case as many countries cannot afford to pay their scientists at respectable rates and so the funding mechanism ignores the financial hardship of Eastern European researchers, the paper says. Such salaries reinforce the tilted playing field and fuel the brain drain.
Despite the EU’s acknowledgement of an east-to-west brain drain trend, this issue is hardly mentioned in impact assessments or proposals for EU’s next research funding framework starting in 2014, the Horizon 2020, the paper says.
“Paying equitably would let Eastern Europe use its competitive advantage of marginally lower living costs to retain and even attract top researchers, so that Principal Investigators can assimilate critical masses of young eager talent,” the paper says.
“Additionally, it encourages many more applications to EU projects and forces local funders to match those compensation rates. This is what EU science stimulation should be.”
And in the area of health research (where the Eastern European disadvantage is particularly strong) the cost to the budget would only be 2.5% to double all salaries to Eastern European researchers.
This is because in health research, most of the funds currently go to the original 15 EU member states, according to the EC’s own report: they received 34 times more health research funding under the FP7 than the newest 12 member states. This difference could not be accounted for by the differences in population size, GDP, or contributions to the budget. In fact, those 12 member states received less money from the FP7 than the ‘rest of the world’ group for health research, and their participation rates in EU projects has dropped since the FP6, despite their contributing to the common funding pool.
“I really doubt that the EC will respond to this until Eastern Europeans are shaking their fists about it. And I think Eastern Europeans scientists should,” he says. “Their own governments have let them down on this too.”
Galsworthy’s message to researchers and policymakers in the region is to raise awareness of the funds available, especially to SMEs.
“The EC wants to fund innovative small companies, but most companies starting up do not know of this big pot of money being prepared,” he says.
Another thing to do is to get universities and SMEs in Eastern European countries networking with each other and with leading Western EU institutions.
“Most of the EU funding now goes to large multinational projects and there is still kudos associated with having eastern / new countries on board,” Galsworthy says.
And they should also petition the EU to get extra ‘structural funds’ to set up the communication and network channels that will drive collaboration and funding applications.