Yesterday I attended the provocatively titled session "Mars and Venus: How Europeans and Americans view and use science." The American speaker was Alan Leshner, CEO of AAAS (publisher of Science) (far right in photo). Representing Europe was Roland Schenkel (far left), Director General of the Joint Research Center (JRC) in Brussels, and
the JRC's press officer, Aidan Gilligan Patrick Cunningham, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Irish Government, who chaired the session. When I bumped into Leshner the previous night at a party, I asked him whether the US is Mars or Venus. "Funny, everyone keeps asking me that," he said. But he neither chose the session's title nor knew the answer. In what might be an ESOF first, the speakers started by changing the title of their own session. "Serena and Venus is a better analogy," said Leshner, referring to the professional tennis-star Williams sisters. "It's a competition, but we're in the same boat."
"Science has flourished for the past 400 years in Europe," said Schenkel, "but today the U.S. dominates." Why? The reason is the nature of the two beasts, he says. "The U.S. is a single massive economy," while the European Union (E.U.)--though collectively the larger economy-- is composed of many countries pursuing their own interests. To put that into perspective, said Schenkel, "imagine a U.S.A in which the federal government managed only 5% of overall R&D expenditure with 95% managed individually by 50 independent states." On an optimistic note, he pointed out that the E.U.'s share of the world's peer-reviewed scientific articles is 38% to the U.S.'s 33%. But a scientist in the audience pointed out that the E.U. papers have a much lower total impact factor. "The reason is that we speak 15 languages," he said before proposing that all publicly-funded E.U. scientists be forced to publish their research in English. (Schenkel shot that idea down as unworkable.)
Leshner focused on the increasing tension between science and society in the U.S., arguing that the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks have "skewed" research priorities. The budgets for research on "biosecurity" have ballooned, he said, while many of those for basic research stagnated. But the biggest flies in the ointment between science and society, according to Leshner are "current scientific issues that abut against core values: embryonic stem cell research, studies of sex, genetics of behavior, neuroscience (challenging concepts of mind/body), and the teaching of intelligent design versus evolution in science classrooms." Leshner also shared some optimism. "Both Obama and McCain seem to be science friendly," he said. Then again, "we are facing the largest fiscal deficit in the history of the U.S." Europe's economy is facing tough times too. The science "boat" for each powerhouse region may soon encounter rough waters.