What will it take to make East Europe’s science more competitive? EU’s pay bonuses and West’s help are part of the answer
A salary bonus of up to €8,000 a year made possible through Europe's new €80 billion research scheme, Horizon 2020, may help level the playing field between West and East Europe, but will not be enough on its own to stem the inequality and brain drain that keep Europe from maximising its scientific potential.
The bonus is one of a few innovations aimed at changing the uncompetitive nature of research in Eastern Europe and the strong science salary inequalities across the continent, a problem the EU long recognised but did little to change, says Michael Galsworthy in an article for Research Europe (20 February).
"In addition, Horizon 2020 includes a €722-million fund called Spreading Excellence and Widening Participation, aimed at restructuring outmoded research organisations and bringing in talent," he writes. "Structural funds, often misspent or unspent during Framework 7, will be targeted to substantial ICT, research and innovation efforts according to the plans for regional ‘smart’ specialisation that governments will put before the Commission. This regional development fund will be a colossal €100 billion, and money for centres of excellence in the east is attracting the interest of big western research institutions."
Before Horizon 2020, science in eastern Europe has had a "desperately low" participation rate in EU-funded projects, stagnant pay, rising living costs and austerity measures that have cut into science jobs and salaries heavily.
"The European Commission would pay salaries at the local rate, even though the rate for doing the same work, on the same project, in a wealthier European country would be substantially more," he writes. "As a result, scientists fled eastern Europe at a time when the region needed to retain them to replace an inefficient old guard left over from the communist era. With talent starved and driven out, the mood among young scientists was glum."
Despite "rock-bottom salaries in the east" meaning that much less EU research money (than expected through levels of participation in EU grants alone) made it to Eastern Europe, Galsworthy writes, the European Commission was "irresponsible" in dealing with "such a fundamental issue so offhandedly".
"The €8,000 bonus is an immediate solution but, with large salary differences remaining, it may be applying a bandage where an operation is needed," he writes.
Either all scientists should receive equal pay for equal work or research institutions should be allowed to freely compete with each other like companies, he argues.
He goes on to discuss "structural problems" he has seen while working in Slovenia such as heavy bureaucracy, thin resources for networking and support, and unattractive career paths, making many ambitious scientists look elsewhere.
To fix this, he writes, will require Western Europe's help.
"We now need a sustained effort to fully integrate eastern Europe into the European research and innovation ecosystem," he concludes. "It will all take hard work, but that work will bring everyone dividends a decade from now and onwards."