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Europe: The battle of the scientists

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Are Europeans becoming more hostile to science and technology?

AT THE end of a hard year Europe’s leaders are grappling with familiar problems—how to revive gasping economies, what to do about the Russian menace. But a quieter source of discontent is also bubbling up: Europe’s scientists. The continent of Galileo and Darwin is not about to cast off its glorious heritage. But the boffins have two recent causes for concern. One is a new investment plan devised by the European Commission to kickstart growth, which relies partly on taking €2.7 billion ($3.4 billion) of money previously devoted to Horizon 2020, the EU’s science fund. The Royal Society, an august British scientific body, and others have complained about the money grab.

The second is over the role of science in European policymaking. Three years ago Anne Glover, a Scottish molecular biologist, became the EU’s first chief scientific adviser. She could also be its last. Her mandate expired, along with the previous commission’s, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the new president, has not seen fit to renew it. Not in office long enough to absorb the diplomatic habits of Brussels insiders, Ms Glover was notably outspoken on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), describing opponents as suffering from “a form of madness”. That was too much for green NGOs, who called for her head in a letter to Mr Juncker. Some saw in this the seeds of Ms Glover’s downfall.


There is, even so, a good-news story to tell. Europe’s cities hum with smart minds and entrepreneurial energy. Startup clusters have emerged from Bratislava to Barcelona, as well as in established hubs like London and Berlin. They will benefit from Mr Juncker’s promise to propose legislation to complete the single market for digital services in the first half of 2015. And the EU has improved the way it distributes money to scientists. Of course, more would be nice. Just 7% of the EU budget is devoted to Horizon 2020, against 38% for farm subsidies. Reversing those numbers would surely quieten the doubters.


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