Underrepresentation of women in European science prevents the realisation of the European Research Area's dream of improving co-ordination of research efforts to effectively challenge the dominance of the United States, concludes a new report from the women and science unit of the European Commission's (EC's) Directorate-General for Research. The shortage of women in science not only represents a waste of human resources but also, compared with the proportion of women in the population, "induces a distortion between science and society at a moment where it is of utmost importance to increase confidence in science," states the report.

Two years ago, the European Commission adopted the communication "Women and Science: Mobilising Women to Enrich European Research," which laid out an action plan for increasing women's participation in European science. The new report reviews progress to date. Successes include the formation of the Helsinki Group, which brings together civil servants from all the member states with special responsibility for promoting women in scientific research. This group is pressing for collection of gender-disaggregated statistics in order to properly quantify the shortage of women in science.

A second success is the publication in 2000 of a 1999 European Technology Assessment Network (ETAN) report that brings together much of the information available in Europe on the situation of women in science and highlights further action points. The natural and social scientists who wrote the ETAN report succeeded in collecting a wealth of information about academic women scientists. However, they found that information about women working in industry was well-nigh impossible to come by. The women and science unit promises to address this by setting up another expert group later this year to report on the situation of women in private-sector research. A third group will be formed in 2002 to look at the position of women in science in central and Eastern Europe. These groups, says Nicole Dewandre, head of the women and science unit, will have a different makeup from the original ETAN panel, but "the spirit is the same," based on a "link between knowledge and action."

A gender watch system has also been implemented to monitor participation by women in European Union (EU) research programmes. This scheme sets a target of 40% female membership on all the panels that evaluate and manage EU-funded research, for example, those carrying out peer review. Although there is still some way to go to reach the 40% figure, the report claims that "setting the target has had an impact on increasing the number of women involved in FP5 [the European Commission's Fifth Framework Programme]." The most dramatic example of this is the programme monitoring panels, which averaged 30% female membership in 2000. Under the Fourth Framework Programme (FP4), the average was just 6%. The only grant programme to which the 40% target applies is the Marie Curie Fellowship program, which aims to increase the mobility of young scientists at pre- and postdoctoral levels. In 2000, 37.3% of successful Marie Curie Fellowship proposals were from women.

Some doubt whether the 40% figure is achievable across all panels at present. The U.K. government has recently introduced a 40% target for female participation on all public bodies, says Nancy Lane, a cell biologist who heads the University of Cambridge's initiative for women in science. But Lane points out that in U.K. academic science, even at the lowly researcher level, women account for only 20% of the staff in physical sciences and engineering, with the numbers dropping off further with seniority. Dewandre agrees that there simply may not be enough women to go around but asserts, "We don't want only to mirror the situation."

The gender watch system will continue into the Sixth Framework Programme. The hope is that setting such targets will make women more visible and enhance their participation in the scientific process, ultimately driving an increase in the number of women in science. Overall, Lane believes that it is "admirable" that the EC set up the women and science unit and that there are some "terrific people" involved in pushing forward the issue continentwide. However, it's certain that individual countries still have a major role to play in ensuring that women enter, and stay in, scientific careers.