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Eastern promise

Untapped scientific potential to the east offers short-term challenges for the European Union, but will strengthen it in the end.

The European Commission's latest report on science, technology and innovation, published on 25 November, makes for a sobering read. It shows not only that the 15 European Union (EU) countries have made little progress towards their avowed goal of increasing their expenditure on research and development (R&D), but that the gap in such spending between the EU and the United States is actually widening.

However, a close reading of the document suggests at least one route forward as Europe struggles to strengthen its research base — the largely untapped human potential of the nations of eastern Europe, most of which are now in the process of joining the EU.

A goal of boosting R&D spending to 3% of the economy by 2010 was publicly proclaimed by Europe's leaders at the Barcelona EU summit in 2002, but now seems to be less realistic than ever. Any prospect of boosting this investment has been choked by Europe's recent economic weakness. In 2001, the most recent year for which a reliable comparison is available, for example, industry and government in the EU 2001 spent €141 billion (US$165 billion) less on R&D than did the United States — almost twice the gap that existed in 1999.

It is sometimes said that EU enlargement, under which ten eastern and central European nations will join the union next May, will aggravate the discrepancy. But this month's report suggests that in the longer term, the dynamics and favourable demography of the ten countries might provide a badly needed boost for European science.

Currently, their total R&D expenditures account for just 2% of the EU's €178-billion total annual expenditure. But their growth potential is considerable. Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovenia and Latvia, for example, are already among the top-ranked economies in the world in terms of the growth of their research activities. And the first results of their participation in the EU's Sixth Framework Programme indicate growing competitiveness in their research capabilities.

The European Commission needs to step in to support the east's budding capabilities, particularly in promising areas such as computer science. In the short term, a change in the rules to allow universities and research laboratories to benefit from so-called 'structural' funds, directed at infrastructure in poor regions, would help.

In the medium term, EU policies should change to accommodate the fact that the main strengths of countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary lie not in technology development, where existing policy has its focus, but in basic research. Putting more money into this — through a proposed European Research Council, for example — would help these countries to assert their potential.

As the report makes clear, these countries have great human potential. Their populations are well educated, particularly in science and mathematics. In the long term, Europe must exploit this talent if it is to be globally competitive in science, technology and innovation.

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Eastern promise. Nature 426, 369 (2003).

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