Most people associate brain drain with developing nations. The idea being: a country that can't support its most talented minds will lose them to places that can. Most don't come back. That's now happening in southern Europe. Two cases just this week showed how the need to save five figures in salaries now could cost cash-strapped nations nine or 10 figures in valuable research down the line.
Earlier this week we heard the ridiculous story of 30-year-old Diego Martinez Santos, a modest genius from Galicia, Spain, who has been doing research in Holland. Santos had just been voted "the most promising young experimental physicist" in Europe by the continent's organization in that discipline, the European Physics Society. Unfortunately, according to Spain's TheLocal.es, the very same day Santos learned his application for a research grant that would have allowed him to work in his crisis-wracked home nation had been rejected—on the grounds that he was "not good enough." That didn't make much sense in the scientific community. Follow the money instead—or the lack of it—said Santos' old adviser. From the Local story:
Juan José Saborido Silvia, coordinator of the Atlas High Energies group at Santiago University, where Martínez Santos wrote his thesis, claimed that, "a person with a serious reputation in Europe is not valued in Spain." Spain's attitude to science came under fire recently when Finance Minister Luís de Guindos' claim to have shielded research from cuts was met with widespread rebuttals from the scientific community.
Looked at coldly, the Santos case might not cost Spain much up front. Nor Santos. Holland's nice. Santos can come back for holidays, and Spain can probably lurch forward a few years more without monetizing his work on the "difference in the balance between matter and antimatter which could have led to the matter-dominated Universe that exists today."
Three days later, however, the much less theoretical case of Nuria Marti hit the papers in Europe. Marti—"Nora Martin" if that's more relatable—is one of the authors of research published two days ago by a team of biologists in Oregon claiming to have successfully cloned a human stem cell.
Whatever you think of the bioethics of the discovery, it's clearly a very big deal. How did Marti get in on this career-making team, other than being very talented?
Austerity. Austerity-era budget cuts at Valencia, Spain's Prince Philip Research Center cost her a job, and she had an offer in the United States the next day. An absolute bloodbath, the 2011-2012 cutbacks included the cancellation of 12 out of 26 research projects at the large Spanish biotech center. Nearly half the scientists and staff—114 out of 244 before the cuts—were fired, according to local reports. So people like Marti went elsewhere and aren't itching to return.
"It seems to me really absurd, after investing time and training in someone, not to take advantage of it," she said, speaking from Portland to Spanish daily El Pais. Marti said she'd like to do her research in Spain, "but the way things are, no."
It will be interesting to see the value of the resulting patent for lab-grown stem cells, especially as compared to the $30,000 a year or so people like Marti and Santos earn in downsized Spanish labs. One upside: if Europe's austerity states can't get their Santoses and Martis back, it might soon be possible to clone them.