Plugging Europe’s Brain Drain

Three years ago, E.U. leaders vowed to make the union “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world” by 2010. But one of the most worrying signs of their failure is the continued drain of Europe’s best and brightest scientific brains, who finish their degrees and pursue careers in the U.S. Some 400,000 European science and technology graduates now live in the U.S. and thousands more leave each year. A survey released in November by the European Commission found that only 13% of European science professionals working abroad currently intend to return home.

The flight of European scientists to the U.S. is nothing new, of course. Political and religious persecution drove luminaries like Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi across the Atlantic. The exodus continued in the 1950s and 1960s, as the U.S. poured billions into defense-related research and created magnetic clusters of scientific excellence, staffing them with the world’s best minds and prompting Britain’s Royal Society to coin the term brain drain. America’s investments laid the foundation for the tech booms of the 1980s and 1990s, which drew yet more entrepreneurial Europeans westward. Europe’s bureaucracies, rigid hierarchies and frustrating scientific fragmentation also pushed people away as they still do to this day. “Europe is a mess,” thunders Christopher Evans, a biotechnology professor at four British universities and chairman of the venture-capital firm Merlin Biosciences, “a haze of overregulated and overcomplicated bureaucracies smothering the rare flames of true entrepreneurial brilliance.”

Is it really so bad? Europe does have world-class research centers, such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, where the World Wide Web was invented, and the Heidelberg-based European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), where 1995 Nobel laureates Eric Wieschaus and Christiane Nuesslein-Volhard did their fruit-fly genome research. But complaints like those of Claude Allegre, the former French Education Minister who heads the Paris VII geochemical lab, are all too common. He decries France’s anachronistic “Soviet” system, in which control is centralized and researchers must run a bureaucratic obstacle course, whether to buy expensive equipment or order basic office supplies. “I’m planning on moving to the U.S. indefinitely because I want to continue my research,” says Allegre. “I can’t do so in the current conditions.”

A longish piece but worth taking a look at.

I lived in Germany for a number of years and certainly didn’t find it oppressive. Western Europe is a pretty good place to live and it’s not as if the people are living in poverty. But they’ve made a series of decisions over the course of decades to substantially bound free market forces to create a more balanced distribution of wealth; we’ve done the same but to a much lesser degree. This article points to the down side of the choices the Europeans have made. Of course, there is also a down side to our system–a not insignificant number of people who fall through the proverbial cracks, a sometimes brutal employment market, and phenomenally high prices for prescription drugs, to name a few.

One wonders, though, if the price the Europeans pay wouldn’t be much higher had we not made the decisions we made. They have, in essence, been free riders on our system. The vast expenditures made for research and development in the defense industry, for example, benefitted our allies almonst as much as it did our own citizens. And the technological revolution of the past forty or so years has largely been American. While we’ve certainly benefitted from innovations made by Europe over the same period, surely the scale is not balanced.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. SwampWoman says:

    There we go again–unilaterally improving world living conditions. Who gave us the right to do that?

  2. Nick says:

    It just seems so overwhelmingly obvious that mimicking the US will provide you with great success. Why is the entire world in such a rush to act like this isn’t true. Don’t they want to live better?

  3. Well, that’s part and parcel of the dominant IR theory on the decline of hegemonic powers–that the lead power takes on a disproportionate share of the burden for system maintenance, while the allies of the hegemon free ride on the benefits. Not sure if I completely buy it, but it does make sense vis-a-vis NATO, ANZUS, SEATO, and other military alliances. (No cites, I’m an Americanist/behaviorist 😉

    Arguably Germany, and to a lesser extent Britain, have a similar burden within the EU–not just propping up less developed countries like the Mediterranian ex-dictatorships, but also grossly inefficient agricultural sectors in France and Italy.

  4. Here’s Chris’ cites: Gilpin/Thompson & Modelski/Organski & Kugler. Though most of the theories say the hegemon/system leader declines because of innovation/development on the part of a challenger, not because of the cost of empire.