"The Rain in Spain"….FT’s Gideon Rachman on the crisis of the European Project

Gideon Rachman is one of the FT’s very best. Here’s his latest report from Spain–it’s not pretty. In the late eighties and early nineties Spain was brimming with the kind of optimism that produced a generation of extremely bright scientists…many came to the States for training at the NIH, but then returned to the mother country, believing in both the European Project and endless possibilities for innovation. I saw this excellence first hand, in Madrid, Salamanca, Alicante and Barcelona…

Sustained progress in science however requires economic stability in addition to a long term view from political leaders….

That’s a lesson that could well be learned in other places too.

Doctoral trainees soft-skills: the transatlantic perspective

Yesterday there was a terrific conference put on by the Polish Presidency of the European Union at the headquarters of the American Association for Advancement of Science here in Washington.

I had the honor of speaking about a real concern of mine: namely the doctoral students are only trained in the soft-skills (e.g. grantsmanship) of the place where they are receiving their training. So, for example, a doctoral student in neuroscience being trained here in the US, typically doesn’t learn anything about the European Research Council’s “starter grants”–even if that student is European and actually planning to return to Europe post-PhD.
The reverse is also true. What I am advocating for is a plan to create a transatlantic soft-skills curriculum, whereby all doctoral trainees learn something about each system: Europe and the US.

And of course, this could be expanded usefully elsewhere around the world.

Niall Ferguson’s United States of Europe, 2021

In today’s Wall Street Journal, here. His view: the Euro will still exist, but not so much for the European Union….oh and that Brussels will be replaced by Vienna to make the Germans more comfortable.

It’s an entertaining piece, but I’m pretty skeptical of such geopolitical forecasting, especially so far out. The world is far too much of a series of linked complex adaptive systems to make predictions that I’d be willing to actually bet on.

The difficulties of the Eurozone…

The current challenges in the Eurozone have the potential to reach far out into global science, certainly beyond Greece and even beyond the EU. The reason is simple: Europe plays a central role in many “big science” initiatives (the obvious ones of course in particle physics and astronomy). But the EU also supports an enormous amount of very high caliber research in the life sciences through its Framework funding initiatives.

Above and beyond the funding of science, there’s also a critical mass of top notch scientists in Europe and the tendrils of their collaborations reach around the globe.

So we wish our colleagues across the Atlantic the best. All of science has a vested interest in the current Eurozone crisis being resolved positively and promptly.

Some thoughts on the debt crisis

First, I think the consequences for US science, were the US to default and possibly even if Congress and the President reach a deal, will be negative. In macro terms, I see Federal R&D on a downward glide slope that may well turn into a dive.

Second, I think the combination of the US debt crisis and the European sovereign debt melt down are potentially devastating to the entire global science enterprise. Asia is not yet at the point where the massive western science infrastructure is not needed to push ahead.

Third, with regards to the US, the solutions being put forward by both sides are so constrained by the size of the entitlement problem, there is no scenario that I can see where we don’t eat our seed corn.

To give loyal readers a sense of what the future might look like, we might look to the example of Soviet science after the collapse of the USSR in 1989. Not good.