A modest proposal to block the brain drain


Dick Ahlstrom reports on a new idea by the Government's chief science adviser to hold on to our brightest graduates.  

The lack of a clear career path is pushing too many young science graduates away from research, but a proposal from the Government's new chief science adviser could change all that. He argues that post graduates should be given a seven-year contract and a possible tenured position afterwards.

Dr Barry McSweeney's modest proposal turned heads when presented late last month at the first annual Science, Technology in Society Forum in Kyoto, Japan. Delegates to the conference included 90 government ministers, 15 recent Nobel laureates and the heads of Intel, Microsoft and Pfizer among others.

It involves giving our brightest young PhDs a chance to win a seven-year research contract. If they can prove their merit either as a member of a research group or working alone, they could then seek a tenured research post either in academic research or in the private sector.

McSweeney has already had preliminary discussions with the European Commission on co-funding such a scheme. He hopes to convince both the Commission and Government that the Republic would be an ideal country in which to pilot such a support programme that would accelerate our movement towards a knowledge-based economy.

McSweeney has something of a track record when it comes to graduate support programmes. He introduced the Marie Curie research fellowship programme in 1996 while serving as head of the Commission's fellowship activities. It has become a singularly important scheme for cultivating bright young researchers and encouraging their "mobility" across EU research labs.

The scheme has supported about 30,000 post-doctorates since its introduction. The Commission views it as important enough to give it a €1,580 million share of the €19,000 million Framework Programme 6 research budget.

Now McSweeney wants to create a new mobility scheme that will prevent the ongoing European "brain drain" of young graduates to the US. In effect it would provide a solid career structure tempting enough to help keep Europe's and Ireland's top researchers somewhat closer to home.

"I firmly believe that when you look globally, I am convinced that the lack of clear career structures is a deterrent for people going into research," says McSweeney. "What we haven't got at present, except in the academic stream, are full-time research posts in Ireland."

This isn't a problem for Ireland alone, he told delegates in Japan. "I didn't raise it as an Irish issue, I raised it as a global issue," he says. There aren't enough good science postdocs around and research centres around the world are finding it difficult to attract enough young graduates.

The Government has stated its intention to push State spending on research to 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2010, almost double the current spend but still shy of the 3 per cent target set by EU governments at the Lisbon summit. It also wants to double the output of science graduates to an average of 9.3 per 1,000 as recommended in Building Ireland's Knowledge Economy, published last July. "If you are going to do Lisbon and [ meet the target of ] 3 per cent you are going to need a lot of researchers," says McSweeney. Yet only one in 10 leaving students go on to do science at third level.

"You can make all the excuses under the sun. The fact of the matter is for the main line science subjects we have a huge drop-off. It must be there is a perception of a void, a career void."

He believes his proposal will provide a career path that will keep more of our best students in scientific research. He pictures an initial seven years, with the next step depending on the quality of work done by the researcher.

"These people are full-time professional researchers," McSweeney says. They can either move into a fixed career at their research centre or be given a tenured position in academic research.

He expects that at least half of the researchers under such a programme would end up in companies rather than at third level. "This would be a brilliant scheme for getting researchers into industry. It would put real research into Irish industry. The programme is also a huge opportunity to regenerate our existing research base," he adds.

Now is the time to float such a scheme in Brussels given that the Commission will present the next science budget, Framework Programme 7 early next year. If we miss this opportunity we will have to wait another four years until the next budgetary cycle.