Europe offers cash and kudos to woo scientists

Switzerland is keen to stop the brain drain of young scientists towards the US (NSF) SNSF

Swiss and European research officials are working on an ambitious new plan to encourage talented young scientists to come to Europe.

This content was published on October 21, 2002 - 10:48

Grants totalling $1.5 million over five years are being dangled before researchers in a bid to stop them bypassing Europe in favour of the United States.

The European Young Investigators Award will offer the grants to researchers in any discipline from humanities and natural sciences to biology or medicine.

"It's a programme to make Europe more competitive," said Heidi Diggelmann, president of the National Science Foundation's research council.

Independent careers

Europe has a number of schemes for early career scientists but the new initiative is the most comprehensive of its kind.

"There's nothing really international at this high level of assistant professorship and there's nothing that has this wide scope," Diggelmann told swissinfo.

"It should be an occasion for young scientists with a couple of years of postdoctoral experience to really start their independent career."

The new project is part of a growing move to strengthen European science across national boundaries.

Brain drain

"One of the attractions of the American system is that scientists have a chance earlier after their postdoc period or after their degree to become really independent," said Diggelmann.

"This convinces many Europeans to apply for assistant professorships in the United States instead of coming back after their postdoc to Europe.

"It's certainly something to counteract... the brain drain and make Europe more visible and more attractive to young scientists."

Diggelmann said the criteria for successful applications would be scientific excellence, the originality of the proposal and the research potential of the group leader.

Open to all

The initiative is the brainchild of the European Union's Heads of Research Councils.

Research councils of the 15 European Union countries and three associate members including Switzerland are working out the details of the scheme at their plenary session in Athens.

The competition will be open to scientists from anywhere in the world but they must go to work in a participating country.

Initially, they will apply to the research council of the country where they want to research.

Panels, managed by the by the European Science Foundation in Strasbourg, France, will evaluate finalists.

Applicants must be under the age of 35 or have completed a postdoctoral appointment within the last two to five years with consideration given for career breaks such as maternity leave. The awards will cover salary, overheads and personnel.

First round

To launch the programme in January, officials would like at least five participating countries, representing at least 100 million people.

Participating countries hope to fund about 30 awards in the first round with the number rising as more countries join in.

There are no guarantees that a contributing country will have even one winning applicant working at any of its institutions.

"There will be absolutely no quota for countries," explained Diggelmann. "There will be a quota for contributions but no guarantee of rewards."

Swiss contribution

Diggelmann added that it was too early to know what Switzerland's role would be.

"It depends how many countries adhere, how many partners there are," she said. "If there are 20-30 awards to start with then I think that Switzerland would probably, depending on the size of the other partner countries, contribute the equivalent of three or four."

Switzerland, like Austria and Germany, has a national programme but it does not have the flexibility of the new scheme.

"It would mean we could bring in foreigners directly which our national programme does not allow," said Diggelmann.

"We can only nominate people who are Swiss...or who have already worked for a couple of years in a Swiss university. The new programme should be open to everybody.

Diggelmann said the programme would also be a significant boost for countries which invest less in science but have one or two attractive institutions.

swissinfo, Vincent Landon

in brief

Swiss and European research officials are working on a new plan to encourage talented young scientists to come to Europe instead of the USA.

The European Young Investigators Award will offer grants worth $1.5 million over five years to researchers in humanities, natural sciences, biology or medicine.

Applicants must be under the age of 35 or have completed a postdoctoral appointment within the last two to five years.

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