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When Will the U.S. Invest In Its Scientists?

When Will the U.S. Invest In Its Scientists?

June 11, 2018 | Just days ago, the European Commission released plans of the largest scientific research funding program in history. Called “Horizon Europe,” the program plans to spend €100 billion (117.8 billion USD) on research between 2021 and 2027. Additionally, the plan invites “third countries” such as Canada and South Korea that are not part of the E.U. to participate in the program. These countries will receive funding on the premise that they will not put in more effort than they get out, and that they can collaborate with the EU on a number of projects that address global issues.

The funding will be parsed out to reflect the three pillars of Horizon Europe. About half of the money (€52.7 billion) is designated to support a number of global projects on climate change, nutrition, digital technologies, and energy. Another significant portion of the funding will go towards fundamental research grants and infrastructure. A smaller portion of the money is set to enhance Europe’s innovation output—to primarily make moonshots. In these projects, scientists will tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Called “missions”, these projects address tall order global problems such as ocean pollution and healthcare. The missions will connect scientists with civilians in efforts to make science goals accessible and understandable. “Taxpayers don’t know why you need €1 billion to map the brain, but if you tell them that you are going to cure Alzheimer’s disease, they get it,” said Carlos Moedas, the European Commissioner for Research and Innovation.

In a swift and elegant move, the E.U. has shown to the world that they prioritize—and are leaders in—science, innovation, and international cooperation.

This news hits the United States in the wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and in the aftermath of the decision to cut NASA’s funding to monitor greenhouse emissions. Although the U.S. remains a global leader in scientific research, the disparity between changes in the U.S. and changes in the E.U. illuminate diverging priorities between the two powerhouses.

I recently returned from a week-long neuroscience and vision science program in Toronto. Of the 43 participants, a lowly two were from the U.S. There were many researchers from Europe, Asia, Australia, the Middle East, South America, and of course, Canada. But if the U.S. has as much prowess as it purports, why aren’t more students represented at international conferences or workshops? It is perfectly common to see international professionals at U.S. meetings, but the reverse situation is lackluster at best.

Three glaring reasons explain the lack of U.S. students at international events: geography, finances, and a lack of knowledge or interest. First of all, it is hard to ignore the fact that major oceans (and time zones) separate the U.S. from the U.K., Europe, and Asia. It’s not as easy for U.S. scientists to attend conferences located in Germany, for example, as it is for people who come from France, Latvia, or Norway. In a similar vein, a cross-continental plane ticket is much more expensive than a train ride. Students may or may not have the funds to travel, and unlike European students who get reimbursed for conference participation, many U.S. students and professionals are expected to front the costs alone. While travel logistics might seem like a trivial matter to consider, the high cost of travel is a chronic barrier to U.S. scientists who wish to present research abroad.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, U.S. students are not aware of the many conferences and workshops that take place outside of the United States. Professors and academics push meetings like SfN (Society for Neuroscience, held in California) or ACS (American Chemical Society, held in rotating U.S. cities), and forget to mention conferences like the ESC (European Society for Cardiology) that attracts about 30,000 participants annually. Indeed, many of the world’s largest conferences are located in the U.S., but this does not excuse our absence at other international notable meetings. While geography obviously plays a role in hindering scientific collaboration, finances or a lack of awareness should not.

With Horizon Europe’s 2021 research funding shortly upon us, it is clear that the E.U. has invested in their scientists and innovators. They have made their priorities apparent to all and are not afraid to publicly—and monetarily—support their techies and researchers. With the new funding plan, students and professionals will get financial support to lead missions and present work abroad, which in effect, removes the travel burden and allows scientists to collaborate internationally. In the U.K., Australia, and Europe, the majority of public scientific institutes and universities are funded by the government; major grants are generated from tax dollars; and thousands of civilians reap the benefits of investing in their own scientists. It is time for the U.S. to take a hint from the rest of the world and do the same.

Stephanie Reeves is a research assistant at Schepens Eye Research Institute and a recent participant in the Fulbright Program in Russia.


The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.

Photo by ChristianSchd [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

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