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Europeans forgo US labs

Stagnant budget makes American biomedicine less attractive.

National interests: better prospects are luring European biomedics home from the United States. Credit: CANCER RESEARCH UK

Tim Somervaille made a surprising move last month. After four years as a postdoc researching leukaemia at Stanford University in California, he went back home to Britain. In doing so, he joined other European biologists working in US labs who are finding that prospects in their native countries are more enticing than those in their adopted home.

Somervaille knew he would return to Britain at some point, but he hadn't expected to be heading back so soon. ?The current funding landscape in Britain is, frankly, way more attractive,? he says.

For decades, an abundance of positions, strong funding opportunities and more independence in the lab made the United States the place to be for ambitious European biologists. Now, stagnant budgets at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and increased competition for grants are starting to make America less appealing. And some academics say that they are noticing more researchers heading east across the Atlantic.

?I think people are going back,? says Markus Stoffel, a molecular biologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Stoffel last year moved from Rockefeller University in New York for family reasons. Since his return, he has seen an increase in the number of job applications to his lab from the United States and Canada. Europeans also seem more interested in staying at home after they graduate, he says: ?For many young people, it's not a must any more to go to the States.?

The situation varies hugely from country to country and field to field, but cancer research in Britain offers one example of how the tables may be starting to turn. Since 2002, funding for the UK National Cancer Research Institute has risen by 51% to £390 million (US$799 million). ?The prospects for funding in the United Kingdom, especially in cancer, are really healthy,? says Nic Jones, director of the Paterson Institute for Cancer Research in Manchester, UK, which will be Somervaille's new home.

Meanwhile, the fortunes of cancer researchers in the United States have taken a turn for the worse. As the budget of the NIH doubled in the five years up to 2003, cancer research received an influx of money and people. Since then budgets have stagnated, even declining slightly in the case of the National Cancer Institute. ?I think it's at the stage of a crisis,? says William Hait, president of the American Association for Cancer Research in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Duncan Odom of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute agrees. The American-born 37-year-old last year decided to move to Britain from the Whitehead Institute for Biological Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Odom says he made the move partly because of the funding situation. The scarcity of US resources has left mid-career researchers scrambling for grants, he says: ?They're getting their knees kicked out from under them.?

By contrast, his new institute provides him with a salary and core funding for three postdocs and three graduate students. Odom says that the change has meant less time spent writing grants and more time for his research.

But the United States' long-established leadership in cancer research is far from over. Funding may have fallen, and research positions may be more elusive, says John Schiller, an oncology researcher at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, but there are still huge advantages of scale and resources. ?There are so many people doing so many related things here,? Schiller says, adding that opportunities in the private sector, especially in the US biotechnology industry, remain unrivalled.

Even some who have come back to Europe doubt whether they are part of a wider trend. Peter Mombaerts, who is returning to Germany after 12 years at Rockefeller University, says he has yet to see evidence of a broader exodus from the United States.

But in some cases, the usual incentives of money and stability are pulling in Europe's direction for a change. The Paterson Institute, for example, offered Somervaille a six-year deal that included salaries for himself, two postdocs and a lab manager. ?I don't have to write any more grants for the next five or six years,? he says. ?For me, the move was a no-brainer.?


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Brumfiel, G. Europeans forgo US labs. Nature 449, 954 (2007).

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