Blue skies, pots of gold and rosy rainbows…

Just back from a trip to Brussels to chair a symposium organised by Helmholtz Association, the German public research organisation, and colourfully entitled “From Blue Skies to Pots of Gold at the End of the Rainbow – Successful Collaborations Between Research and Industry”.

The gap between basic science and commercial application is a preoccupation of European policymakers, so the meeting attracted a good crowd to the venue (the Brussels mission of the German state of Baden-Württemberg).

The key word in the title turned out to be “successful”. The official speakers – mainly researchers and entrepreneurs from Germany but also with French and Belgian representatives – talked of how well technology was being transferred from bioscience labs to the market.

Some members of the audience challenged this rosy view. Someone from the EC research directorate said: “Usually when people come to Brussels they want something from us, but you’re saying that everything is fine.”

Jürgen Mlynek, president of the Helmholtz Association, insisted: “We are not in bad shape.” Basic research funding was increasing and entrepreneurial spirit growing, he said.

That provoked a German science journalist from Die Welt to exclaim: “I’m astonished.” Europe was lagging further and further behind the US and China, he said, and was suffering a brain drain of talent.

Professor Mlynek insisted again that his “unGerman” optimism was justified. On the brain drain, he commented: “The Bush years were perfect for Europe. Many young Germans who have studied in the US have come back to Europe. The conditions are just great.”

But even with the election of the Obama administration, more generous to research and more sympathetic in its political attitudes, a European brain drain to the US had not resumed, Prof Mlynek added.

We shall see whether his optimism is justified.

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Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.

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