Global Economics

Europe Needs More Science Students


At the first European Innovation Summit, speakers implored young people to return to studying science to solve a looming talent shortage

If one message shone through the myriad of ideas expressed on day one of Europe's first ever Innovation Summit, it was a call for a greater numbers of students in the field of science.

The two-day event (13-14 October) being held in the European Parliament is an attempt to jumpstart Europe's flagging innovation and will see hundreds of students descend on the Brussels-based institution to hob-nob with policymakers.

Addressing the younger audience in a morning session on Tuesday, the parliament's vice-president, centre-right MEP Alejo Vidal-Quadras, said the crisis had shown that now was the time to be studying science again.

"Forget about derivatives, equities and liquidity traps," said the former radiation scientist. "Instead of running after money, try to derive wisdom. The money will come to you."

Another speaker, Matthias Bichsel of Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa), said Europe was currently facing a dangerous talent shortage and urged EU politicians to act.

Likening the process to an energy pipeline, Mr Bichsel said an inflow of education investments were needed now if an outflow of new talent was to emerge in 15 years time.

"Money is not the bottleneck, we think brainpower is the limiting factor [for European innovation]," he said.

EU lagging

Europe has struggled to keep up with the US in the innovation stakes, with the steady decline in the number of its citizens winning Nobel science prizes over the last century comparing poorly to the rise in winners seen in the US.

While this was only one means to measure innovation said Professor Gerard‘t Hooft, himself a Nobel prize winner in the field of physics, it was an indication of the different innovation climates in the two regions.

However the Dutchman—who describes himself as "more a scientist than a European"—says Europe does have a number of top-quality projects currently underway.

Included in the list is the CERN nuclear research station based in Switzerland, currently in the news following the arrest of one of its scientists on suspicion of links with the terrorist organisation al-Qaida.

CERN is the home of the Large Hadron Collider, a 27-km circular tunnel buried 100 meters under the ground in the vicinity of Geneva airport, in which particle collision experiments will be conducted.

A pact signed by EU leaders 10 years ago in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon was partially intended to produce a greater number of such projects and help transform the region into: "the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world."

But with the strategy due to expire next year, MEPs bemoaned the lost opportunity and urged EU governments to get moving.

"The Lisbon Strategy was written on paper and unfortunately, a lot of its goals will remain in the document and not in the real world," said Mr Vidal-Quadras.

EU action

Funding for EU innovation projects is currently available under the bloc's Seventh Framework Programme for research and technological development (2007-13) which has a budget of €51 billion.

As well as this, the EU's Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme (2007-13) with a budget of €3.6 billion aims to encourage the competitiveness of European enterprises.

While MEPs discussed these and other EU measures, Swedish masters student Olof Karlsson spent the morning outside the parliament's canteen beside the Aurora car he helped to design.

With a body built out of hemp fiber stuck together with soya bean glue, and a hybrid engine powered by an electric battery and a small combustion engine, the car's greater efficiency and environmental credentials could make it a prototype of things to come.

"I'd like to design advanced machinery," said Mr Karlsson when asked about his future ambitions, a message likely to resonate well with many in the building.

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