The European Commission is able to take “concrete, but limited” steps to encourage the return to Europe of pharmaceutical researchers who have chosen to work elsewhere in the world, according to a leading Commission official.

The Commission has set up a programme to attract scientists back, according to Christian Siebert, head of the pharmaceutical/biotechnology competitiveness unit within the Commission’s DG Enterprise and Industry, speaking at the Financial Times annual pharma/biotech meeting in London this week, but, he added, this is just a starting point and he believes that progress will be “incremental.”

A major incentive should be the establishment of the single research area for the region, which the European Research Council (ERC) was set up two years ago to facilitate. At the end of last month, the ERC announced its Advanced Grant scheme, which will total around 4 billion euros over the next six years and is designed, according to Professor Fotis Kafatos, chairman of the ERC Scientific Council: “to bring forward the most ambitious, far-reaching research projects without restriction on the field of study, and to support the most talented established investigators, regardless of nationality, for projects conducted in Europe.” He added that "generous funding is available but there will be very stiff competition”.

Mr Siebert also told the FT meeting that pharmaceuticals is one of the six most competitive manufacturing sectors within the 25 European Union member states, according to a Commission study on the EU industrial structure in 2007 which was released in late November. However, he acknowledged that the US has replaced Europe as the world’s centre for innovation, with Europe now accounting for just 35% of all new medicines, compared with two-thirds of the total in the 1960s.

Initiatives aimed at reversing this situation include the Lisbon Strategy goal which aims for 3% of Gross Domestic Products throughout the EU being spent on R&D; pharma/biotech is the second biggest target for this spending after information technology. However he noted that there are currently wide differences between the EU states in terms of the percentages of GDP which they are spending on R&D. There is also the EU Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), which includes the Innovative Medicines Initiative – a proposed Public/Private Partnership (PPP) with the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) on which the European Parliament is due to vote this month and which has as its goal making Europe once again the world leader in pharmaceutical research. Moreover, as its next initiative, FP7 plans to introduce health research as a new thematic area.

Need to rebuild trust
Mr Siebert also pointed out that a major problem for the industry is the continuing hostile public attitude in Europe towards “certain types of research,” and the industry has itself recently admitted the need to address public concerns. While EFPIA complained last month that European countries “do not seem willing to support and reward pharmaceutical innovation,” its president, Arthur Higgins of Bayer, also acknowledged that it is the industry’s responsibility to rebuild public trust. Speaking at a conference on pharmaceutical innovation organised by the Portuguese presidency of the EU, he told stakeholders that the industry is “committed to doing more and [we] ask you for your honest feedback on our progress so that we can continue to rebuild your trust and to establish a constructive relationship”.

– The other five most competitive manufacturing sectors in the EU are machinery and equipment, aircraft and spacecraft, non-metallic mineral products, printing and publishing and scientific instruments. At the bottom of the ranking are radio and television receivers, electronic valves and tubes, office machinery, clothing, textiles, other instruments, railroad and other transport equipment and basic metals.