The peaceful implosion of communism in the autumn of 1989, almost exactly 50 years after Nazi Germany’s assault on Poland triggered the Second World War, was perhaps the brightest moment in Europe’s twentieth-century history. The fall of the Berlin Wall restored political and personal freedom to central Europe, where people had endured Hitler’s atrocities only to find themselves ruled by Soviet despots. It is a small miracle that the rich learned tradition of the region survived two consecutive tyrannies.

Science in liberated central Europe had to adapt quickly to survive in the free world. Governments, intellectual elites and academic institutions in the region were all equally unprepared for the political sea change that occurred after 1989. A quarter of a century on, the transformation to parliamentarian democracy and a market economy has been achieved. Science was generally not a priority in the early years of the transition. But from 2004 onwards, membership of the European Union (EU) provided a boon that some countries are prudently using to rebuild their research capacities (see page 22). However, despite generous subsidies from Brussels, other countries have a long way to go.

The region’s main asset is a growing pool of young talent that is rediscovering science as a worthwhile profession. This generation rightly demands more support and more constructive political vision than some of the region’s current governments have to offer. In Romania and Bulgaria, where those in power are stubbornly obstructing reform, science is losing out. And in Hungary, where pluralism is under threat, the writing is on the wall.

The last generation of scientists who trained under the communist regime had little faith in science in their countries. When freedom arrived, most of them grasped vastly more lucrative business opportunities or chose to migrate permanently to the West. The resulting shortage of mid-career scientists can be seen in almost any research department in the region. It is also the main reason why central Europe attracts shamefully few grants from the European Research Council and why the region is lagging behind in terms of its overall scientific output (see graphic on page 24).

But interest in science and higher learning is rising sharply. In Poland, student numbers have increased fivefold since 1990. Overall, more than one-quarter of the 20 million students in the EU are now from the new member states. The vast majority of them were born after the demise of communism.

The idea that central Europe remains a poor relation in global science is obsolete.

Young scientists do continue to leave, and so they should, but the excessive brain drain has thankfully ceased. Most countries in the region have in recent years created transparent and strictly merit-based science funding systems. But a lot more needs to be done — especially at universities — to help talented young scientists gain independence at an early age. Institutes that do employ young independent group leaders, such as the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw, are reaping the benefits. Furthermore, funding agencies across the region should expand, and better advertise, programmes aimed at repatriating young foreign-trained scientists.

Universities in the region are a long way from scoring in the upper ranks of international academic comparisons. But the idea that central Europe remains a poor relation in global science is obsolete. Since 2004, numerous labs have been re-equipped to facilitate competitive science. The best institutes now offer conditions on a par with those at aspiring labs in Singapore, China or Saudi Arabia. But science man­agers in central Europe lack the bravado with which the new players in Asia and the Middle East trumpet their strengths and the aggressiveness with which they recruit foreign talent.

The new European Commission that takes office this month must help the region to raise its scientific profile. The EU’s €80-billion (US$100 billion) Horizon 2020 programme, which started this year, includes a scheme that invites less-potent member states to open new research centres, or upgrade existing ones, in partnership with richer countries. Leading research institutions in the West should accept the invitation.

Collaborations involving high-profile British universities, say, or the prestigious German Max Planck institutes, would no doubt raise the visibility of central European science and help to improve the region’s participation in EU-funded research. Structural funds will also remain essential. Billions have already been earmarked for the 2014–20 period, and research is to remain a major beneficiary. But the commission should closely monitor the effectiveness of the investment.

Science is at the heart of the EU’s policies. Its renaissance in many parts of central Europe serves as an example of successful European integration at a time when forces threatening the EU’s social and political cohesion are gaining strength. Domestic neglect of science in the continent’s southeast risks casting the EU’s poorer countries even further adrift from the rest of Europe.