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July 04, 2010

Playing the blame game

Europe's new member states do not have it easy. 20 years after their liberation from Soviet rule and 8 years after their ascension to Europe they still underperform in research. For every two Framework 7 grants going to the core EU15 states, only one goes to Eastern Europe. Fraud and mismanagement affect international collaborations, with Eastern European countries topping the list of reprimands by the European Court of Auditors. And 80 per cent of funding from the European Research Council stays in the "old member states" as researchers from the East prefer to work in Germany and France, the traditional lighthouses of European science.

If you ask researchers from Eastern Europe, the general mood is that these problems are down to a lack of EU funding. The predominant opinion is that Europe should give its eastern members more money, and Polish, Ukrainian or Czech science will rise like Phoenix from the ashes. During the Euroscience meeting in Turin Eastern Europan member states demanded more international research infrastructures and more money from Framework 7. Some even suggested that the ERC, which funds science solely on the basis of excellence, should give more money to Eastern Europe - just for the sake of it.

Among all this clamour, Western European scientists and policymakers like to point out that their Eastern colleagues have good reason to blame their national governments, and themselves. Spending on research and development is abysmal in many Eastern European member states, with Romania, Ukraine and Bulgaria barely reaching 0.5 per cent of annual GDP. The countries in the East have been particularly hard hit by the financial crisis - Lithuania's GDP fell by nearly 15 per cent last year - and science and technology development just do not feature on political and industrial agendas. And one researcher said that many Eastern European, universities, for all their innovativeness and enthusiam,  do not instil an urge in their students to dig deeper and discover, a precondition for excellent research.

Still, Western and Eastern Europeans agree that there are glimpses of hope. Skype, Estonia's main technology export, developed without major public spending initiatives and Poland, a beacon of science centuries ago, is rediscovering its academic potential, with two million people in higher education in a country of 40 million inhabitants. At ESOF, researchers called for a change in mindset. Eastern Europeans must lose their "sense of entitlement" and start lobbying for national and industry funding. Western Europeans must stop seeing the East as a second class area for research and be ready to use its huge potential of young, bright minds. Once again collaboration is the way forward, not competition.


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