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Science

Empty labs vs. esprit d'equipe: why European scientists are better together

The EU lags behind the US both in the funding of science and its ability to reap the benefits of research. One suggested remedy is an idea called 'teaming' - but not everyone's into the spirit.

On paper, research and development in the Czech Republic today is exactly where it needs to be. The country's industrial contribution now exceeds that of government, meaning that private enterprise has embraced R&D and isn't waiting around for public handouts.

So why is Jiří Drahoš, the president of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, looking so gloomy?

"The problem is that industry spends almost all of its money on itself," Professor Drahoš tells DW. "They don't invest in joint research with universities, or in government research, or research with the Academy of Sciences."

It's an ad hoc approach to R&D which may suit companies in the short-term - particularly when it delivers the outcomes the industry needs.

But the fear of many researchers is that a reluctance to engage with other actors could create "castles in the desert" - pockets of expertise disconnected from the partners needed to thrive.

It's a familiar story throughout the EU

Local areas of knowledge - whether a regional industry, a university or a research centre - struggle to find ways to connect. It's a trend which leaves the EU vulnerable to international competition from better integrated economies like the US.

This is why a small group of Europe's leading research agencies, including Germany's Max Planck Institute, have signed a letter calling on the EU to do more to promote "teaming" - a mechanism to support partnerships between countries and regional research actors.

Stefan Marcinowski, former board member, BASF (Photo: Horst Wagner/ Max-Planck Gesellschaft)

Marcinowski says don't spread the money thin - rather invest in excellence

But not everyone is certain that fostering transnational and often long-distance working relationships in Europe is going to get the continent onto the cutting edge of R&D.

Keep it cohesive

You don't have to look far before finding "teaming" success stories in Europe.

There's the partnership between the University of Malta's Centre for Excellence on Adaptation to Climate Change and the University of Leuven, in Belgium. There's also a deal between the Polish Ministry of Science and Cambridge University.

The European Union's executive, the European Commission, likes this approach - both in terms of outcomes and the underlying philosophy of bringing Europe together. So much so that as part of its ambitious Horizon 2020 research and innovation program the Commission will support "teaming" by dipping into European Cohesion Funds - that's money set aside to bridge the gap between poorer and wealthier member states.

But Stefan Marcinowski, who up until last year was a member of the board of German chemical giant BASF, argues localized pockets of knowledge don't always need a broader outlet.

"We really should pour the R&D money into the centers of excellence and not try to disseminate it all over Europe," Marcinowski said at the margins of a debate at the Max Planck Society's Brussels offices. "European countries should try to focus on the strength of what they have and should not try to copy the blueprint of Germany and China, or any other country."

Marcinowski cites as an example of successful, localized knowledge Finland's advances in forestry.

"They developed […] good research activities, but also applied technology in the private sector for machinery," Marcinowski says.

Talking 'bout my generation

The call for a borderless funding environment in Europe is also greeted with caution by newer EU member states in Eastern Europe. Poland, for example, is keen to find ways to build up its national R&D capabilities rather than focus solely on international partnerships.

Robert-Jan Smits Director General of the EU’s DG (department) for Research and Innovation (Photo: Horst Wagner/ Max-Planck Gesellschaft)

Smits says the rate at which China and India are investing in R&D is frightening

"My suggestion is to invest a little more [in young people]," says Jacek Kuznicki, the director of the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw. "[We need to] create the possibility, incentive and extra profit for those very good Principle Investigators who, instead of Cambridge, will go to Warsaw, Prague and Budapest."

Kuznicki says his organization's approach is to identify young researchers, then offer them both the independence and the administrative support they need to carry out their research. That freedom could lead to real breakthroughs and the chance of profits once the technology is patented.

However, others fear that no matter what local, regional or national R&D funding models and staffing arrangements are in place, the fact that the EU is being outspent by the US is what could cost Europe dearly.

"What is even more frightening is that in the Far East we see countries like China and India increasing their research spending by 22 percent a year," says Robert-Jan Smits, the director general of the EU's DG (department) for Research and Innovation. "That means that these countries are really building a knowledge economy. Europe cannot afford to stay behind."

Speaking at the Max Planck meeting, Smits was scathing in his assessment of European leaders who slash spending on research in times of economic hardship.

"Cutting in education, cutting in science and innovation, is indeed a very stupid thing to do," Smits said. "The people who enact that policy are not the true leaders of Europe. They are not the visionaries."

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