TCS Daily


Old School

By Waldemar Ingdahl - February 9, 2006 12:00 AM

European universities are consistently outranked by corresponding American institutions in academic ratings, with only venerable British schools like Oxford and Cambridge University barely entering US dominated charts. Every year the list of Nobel Prize laureates includes mostly Americans, or Europeans working at American institutions. The most advanced research is done in the US, which also sets the broad scientific trends that define the research done elsewhere.

This affects the practical results achieved by research, as well as the applications that can be drawn from them. Back 40 years ago, the US and France were neck and neck on drug development and patents; now the US leads France at a ratio of 5 to 1.

Even the American "brain-drain" due to a restriction of student and researcher visas after 9/11, which is in the long run going to be a problem, does not seem to have kept Europeans from leaving their home countries to do their research in the United States.

European institutions usually claim to need more funding (and also more venture capital to the spin-offs of research; California and Massachusetts alone have more venture capital than the whole of the EU) or that some particular field of research shows promise and resources should be diverted to it (but the researchers somehow never can agree on what that field is). What's more, funding has been shown to have weak effect on the impact of research.

These arguments represent part of the problem, but they are usually only made to address a specific special interest's concerns. A much more disconcerting answer was given by three young Swedish scientists last year. Henrik Ottosson, Astrid Hedin, and Åsa Fex Svenningsen compared their experiences of being researchers in Sweden with their experiences of conducting research in the US.

(Granted, there are differences between Sweden and other European countries academic systems, even though these are diminishing through the Bologna process for the harmonization of academic degrees. But the differences between the continental European system and the Anglo-Saxon model are greater than those between the individual European systems, thus perhaps explaining how British academic institutions still have some opportunities to even compete with the US.)

Ottosson, Hedin and Fex Svenningsen compare the continental European system for researchers with a dated apprenticeship. You graduate as a PhD at the same university where you started as a freshman, and from the beginning of her higher academic studies the young PhD student is very closely connected to her institution's professor, becoming highly influenced in her academic orientation and methodology by the senior academic's. If you are not compatible with the orientation and methodology dominant at your Alma Mater your academic career will be seriously hampered. The comparison between Europe and America also shows in that European PhD students mainly focus on churning out articles and seldom develop new ideas for research.

Some academics in Europe do move from their university, but mainly for post doc studies, from which they return to their original professor's research group. It is absolutely necessary for the young academic's career to be able to latch on his research projects to those of a senior professor's. Thus younger academics often end up as administrators and expanders of previous research, not innovators.

I have often heard Americans being very impressed with the work of some particular European academic household name on the basis that the said work is dominant in Europe. This is true, but it is not necessarily because of its quality. For instance, the work of the German critical sociologist Jürgen Habermas is very dominant in Germany and taught as canonical. But together with his work's merit you have to factor in that so many German sociology professor chairs at present are held by his old students that are clearly affected by their time under his tutelage. It is easy to laud the old master when you are basically repeating his work.

Ottosson, Hedin and Fex Svenningsen point to the fact that American universities stunt the creativity and independence of their PhD students to a much lesser degree. This is possible since American academics do not complete their researcher studies at the same institution where they once graduated. American researchers are often required to build an international academic network independently, and are often given the opportunity to start research groups on their own. Since they also acquire their own funding, from a larger variety of sources, this independence is further strengthened vis à vis the university's more established research groups.

The independence also facilitates cross-disciplinary studies, and the mobility of American academics also enables guest lecturers to have a higher impact with new ideas from the outside than at European institutions.

With the three young Swedish researchers' points in mind, one could ask if the EU's frame programs and expert committees have improved the situation for academic creativity and independence?

Researchers in the European system have become more motivated to increase their understanding of regulations, frame programs, unwritten norms and the findings of European partners. The more funding that is decided in Brussels the more important it is to perform these time consuming activities. The research group's future depends on them, and professors increasingly have to put their time on traveling, meetings and international planning. Thus they require even more that their grad-students are deeply involved in the professor's academic pursuits as they have to perform more of the actual research work.

It does not help that research in European countries has been forced, through an increased political governance, to fill so many other tasks than purely scientific ones, like decreasing unemployment, as special favorable treatment for some industries and for regional policy purposes.

Janez Potocnik, the EU commissioner for science and research, must push some very difficult reforms in order to open up academic career paths and the academic system. But without these reforms Europe's best and most innovative minds will continue to go to the United States.

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2 Comments

From both sides of the ocean
I have so much to say on this subject that I could probably write a book. It is a topic that I have been concerned about for many years now, since Reagan's presidency actually.

Let me start by pointing out that the US is no longer home to "silicon valley". That distinction now belongs to India.

Also, it should be pointed out that a quick scan of the numbers of important papers coming out from Europe, China, and India, vs. US Universities over the last 20 or so years will reveal that simple fact that the US is losing intellectual ground at a rapis rate. Twenty years ago about 90% of the scientific papers were from the US. Now it is closer to 60%.

I am now doing scientific research in EU though I have tenure at a major US university. My first-hand impressions of the research in EU are this; the research here is equal to, and in many cases better than, that going on in the US. The simple reason is this; EU funds research based on society needs and future goals. The US funding system is political. That means that each new president and/or congress brings a new set of standards and emphasis that short change ongoing research. As a consequence, scientists are made to change fields and emphasis in order to keep funding.

This, in turn, results in incomplete research. Moreover, politically connected scientists who are better at writing or who know government officials are more likely to have continuous funding. They do not necessarily work on life-long career goals. Rather, their research is turned into work-for-hire laboratories. They are not able to finish up on exciting novel research areas. Their emphasis shifts with the political wind.

On the other hand, research in the EU, with its built-in continuity, is now surpassing the US system in many regards. Moreover, with the present US political climate, many US scientists are now coming to EU to continue their research.

This all became very apparent to me last year while attending a meeting in Trieste at an institute for theoretical physics. I was talking to a post-graduate student from Ethiopia who was completing a 'finishing year' at the institute so that he could successfully compete against EU students for graduate student positions.

I complimented this student and asked if he would be going to MIT or Berkeley or some such school. He laughed and said 'Oh no! I will be going to a university in Belgium. No offense, but the US Universities are really not that good. They are just sweat shops that use students and then let them fend for themselves.' It seams that this student had a fellowship from Philips that would support this student during graduate studies, and then probably give this person a job in Addis Ababa.

We have few such programs in the US, especially for foreign graduate students.

So, I (as well as some famous economists, eg, Freidman) see the US research and education system as a sinking ship. The federal government and private industry is not investing in the future of America. The future will be one where intellectual property is all that matters. Without a highly educated population, the US cannot possibly compete.

Then again, we could make cheap products for the China and EU.

Unfair to Oxbridge
The article understates Oxford and Cambridge league rankings. there are only 2 international league tables of universities - the Times Higher Education Supplement one and the Shanghai Jiao Tong one. In 2005, THES placed Cambridge 3rd in the world (and no.1 for science) and Jiao Tong placed Cambridge 2nd in the world. Oxford also was in the top 10 for both.
Of course these leagues' methodologies are debatable and imperfect, but the article seems unfair in its assessment.
Also the Oxford and Cambridge endowments (universities + colleges) would put them both in the US top 10 (of the lower 5) if they were US universities

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