Is it simply another case of the grass always being greener on the other side?

The significant funding boost to US research announced recently seems to be causing concern in some quarters. President Obama, as part of his massive economic stimulus plan, has signed off billions of dollars for scientific research over the next two years. This, it is believed, will prompt many in the international research community to reassess their options, decide that the US has become their ’dream destination’ and take off for the warmer research climate on the other side of the Atlantic. 

But should we be worried about this ’brain drain’, or is it simply another case of the grass always being greener on the other side? At a glance, the grass does now seem much greener on Obama’s side of the pond. Not only has a lot of money been pumped into research, but the catalogue of research areas that can be funded with this public money has also been expanded. Additionally, on his quest to reverse many of President Bush’s policies on science, Obama has also made inroads into environmental, climate change and energy issues (including research funding towards next-generation plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and the speculation that California’s cutting edge environmental legislation will be made standard across the country).

However, much of Obama’s science stimulus spending looks set to be earmarked for a much needed improvement of infrastructure, rather than funding new research – suggesting those considering relocation should exercise some caution. Additionally, in spite of Obama’s commitment to the advancement of sciences, the bill is but a two-year plan, which raises concerns over the longevity of the extra funds. Indeed, short term, this strategic investment hopes to provide an economic relief, but what will happen in the long term? In my opinion, they’ll be looking to capitalise on their investment and the development of the necessary infrastructure is likely to be closely followed by a regeneration and modernisation of the nation’s scientific effort. 

So how real is the threat of a brain drain? Will it be realised? It is all down to how the world reacts to the challenge. If Europe and the rest of the world are not willing to commit and take strong measures (and precisely what measures involves a whole new debate) now, the US may be poised to monopolise cutting edge scientific research.

In terms of the UK’s response, the annual budget (to be announced just after Chemistry World  goes to press) should reveal just what action the government is going to take and how this challenge will be faced. As soon as any information becomes available on how science education and research fare in this year’s budget we’ll report on it. Additionally, the June issue of Chemistry World  will be featuring a comment piece on science research funding by Lord Drayson, UK science minister.

On a related topic, in the current issue of Chemistry World  we present the views of the EPSRC, academia and the RSC on the recent funding fall outs. When the EPSRC announced their plans to remove unsuccessful grant applicants from its funding system for one year, heated public debate ensued. To shed light on this issue, Chemistry World  asked representatives of all parties involved to put their views forward. You can read the opinions of Lesley Thompson, EPSRC director of research base, Mike Ward, head of chemistry at Sheffield University, and Dave Garner, president of the RSC. 
Bibiana Campos-Seijo, editor