As President Obama announces billions of dollars in science funding, is Europe at risk of a 'brain drain'?

The significant funding boost to US research under President Obama has caused ripples across the European research community, prompting some to reassess the region’s position as the research environment on the other side of the Atlantic becomes more attractive. 

The massive US economic stimulus bill recently enacted by President Obama provides billions in supplemental funds for the government’s various science agencies over the next two years. An extra $10 billion (?6.75 billion) is being provided to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) alone in support of biomedical research.

However, Obama has not only provided these extra resources for federal science agencies, he has also expanded the kind of research that can be pursued with those public funds. Not least in this renewed catalogue are many types of embryonic stem cell research, following the President’s recent reversal of former President Bush’s policy prohibiting federal funding in this area. 

These developments have raised some concern about the possibility of a ’brain drain’ from Europe to the US, as these falling barriers have quickly made the region a more appealing destination for researchers. 

’Regarding the US science stimulus funds, I don’t think that there is anything in Britain or Europe that matches this sort of activity,’ Ben Sykes, coordinator for the UK National Stem Cell Network, tells Chemistry World. ’If some significant portion of that multi-billion stimulus goes into stem cell research, the UK certainly can’t match that amount of investment.’ 

The Royal Society of Chemistry agrees that there is a danger of UK researchers finding the US a more attractive prospect. However, the RSC’s manager of industry and business, Mario Moustras, points out that Obama’s economic stimulus package is a ’short term boost’ that will primarily focus on funding new infrastructure and clearing a backlog of high quality research proposals that have gone unfunded due to inadequate budgets. Once European researchers realise this, Moustras says, they may think twice about relocating. 

UK’s competitive edge in question 

But when it comes to stem cell research, Moustras suggests that Obama’s lifting of the Bush stem cell policy means that the UK is ’likely to lose its competitive advantage’ in this emerging field. Specifically, the old policy banned public funding for research using embryonic stem cell lines derived after 9 August 2001. Government support was also prohibited for research involving embryonic stem cells that were not derived from excess embryos in fertility clinics. 

Until Obama removed Bush’s restrictions, investors had to spend their money outside the US if they wanted to back the most cutting-edge stem cell research. Several American investors have backed human embryonic stem cell projects in the UK, such as the London Project to Cure Blindness thataims to prevent blindness and restore sight in patients with age-related macular degeneration by 2011. 

But now the circumstances under which these US investors came to sponsor UK research have changed, bringing with them the risk that they will take their money back to US institutions. 

Some of the UK’s research councils and other European bodies, however, say they are confident that there won’t be a brain drain to the US because the recent activity under Obama is simply too little too late. 

Questions remain about what Obama’s new stem cell policy will look like, as he has charged the NIH with developing its parameters, notes Stephen Minger, who directs the Stem Cell Biology Laboratory at King’s College London. In addition, he points out that a number of states are introducing legislation to restrict public funding for certain types of embryonic stem cell research, which if enacted would negate federal law. This scenario would create a disjointed and inconsistent patchwork of policies across the country. 

’Very few stem cell researchers in places like Sweden and Belgium will risk moving to the US - it is a big deal to move a lab internationally, and I don’t think the rewards are great enough,’ Minger tells Chemistry World. 

Good news 

But others see past the brain drain issue and view the positive developments in the US as good news for the broader scientific community. 

’The political will of the new US administration to increase investment in research is good news for anybody who works to promote research and international cooperation in science and technology,’ says Catherine Ray, the European Commission’s spokesperson for science and research. 

The Commission supports efforts to remove barriers to the circulation of knowledge across the globe, Ray adds, citing schemes that allow US researchers access to EC-supported research projects and funds. 

Policies that open up the possibility of more collaborative research projects between US and UK researchers are positive, agrees Roger Pedersen, who directs the Medical Research Council Centre for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine. A leading stem cell researcher, Pedersen moved from the US to the UK in 2001 feeling the political climate was friendlier to his field and that better opportunities were available abroad. 

Whether it’s good news or bad, the pro-research activity in the US is putting pressure on Europe. In the UK, for example, there have been high-level government talks about a science stimulus - but there are doubts about whether such a plan will materialise. 

The UK government’s chief scientist, John Beddington, was recently quoted as saying he is ’not confident’ that the extra science funding will come through. 

Now more than ever 

On 27 February, Prime Minister Gordon Brown delivered a major speech at Oxford University in which he said science, engineering and technology are the foundation of Britain’s economic success, now more than ever before. But he indicated that the UK does not face competition from the US alone. 

Japan has an ongoing target spend of 1 per cent of its GDP on science and technology, said Brown, noting also that China’s share of science publications now equals that of the UK. Smaller economies are also catching up, with Iran increasing its share of publications ten-fold since 1998, suggesting that it’s not just the usual suspects prioritising science and technology. 

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Europe