Going abroad is often a good career move when you are training to be a scientist. Chances are, it will challenge your ideas, introduce you to new ways of doing research, and expand your network. At the very least, it will provide a great experience and expand your personal horizons. On the surface, it seems that you have everything to gain from spending some time in a foreign lab? But is there a catch? Could it be that, while you are boosting your research career abroad, doors are closing at home?

No matter where you're from and no matter where you go to work, there are bound to be some disadvantages to being far from home, especially if you intend to return eventually. In France, however, the problem might be a little worse than it is elsewhere. The public research system itself may put obstacles in the way of young French scientists who wish to return home that scientists returning to other countries may not face. In order to address this problem, the French government recently decided to help repatriating scientists as part of its efforts to revert brain drain.

"Most French scientists do their Ph.D.s in France, and then go abroad for a postdoc," says Lena Alexopoulou, a Greek immunologist who has recently become a group leader in France after experiencing the American research system as a postdoc. Hervé Haquin is one of the French scientists that Alexopoulou is describing; he left France in October 2003 en route to Japan, where he has been working ever since on the chemistry of glass for telecommunications applications, at the National Institute for Materials Science ( NIMS) in Tsukuba. "Young scientists leave France to do a postdoc abroad to maximise their chances to then obtain a permanent position in the public sector? because the research community has always been telling them that some experience of research abroad was an important criterion in the selection of applicants," he explains. Alexopoulou adds that French postdocs also expect to get good publications from their stay abroad, which they hope will strengthen their applications for these positions.

Another incentive for young scientists to leave France is the greater funding and resources they know they will enjoy if they pick a lab of international reputation, especially in the United States or Japan. This is precisely what Hélène Javot has experienced. Javot, an expatriated French postdoc who has been working since 2003 on plant physiology at the Boyce Thompson Institute, which is affiliated with Cornell University in the U.S. "The main difference is in the amount of money," she says. "Here you learn how to save time by using the appropriate tools, but I am aware that you can't do that everywhere."

As in many other countries, the issue of brain drain in France comes down to the fact that permanent positions in the public sector are rare and much coveted. As Javot puts it, it may not be so much that young French scientists leave, but, rather, that "they cannot come back." Javot and Haquin both made the decision to return to France before they left the country. They say they want to settle in France and be closer to their families and friends, even though they are aware that they would enjoy better career opportunities in their host countries.

But some aspects of the French system may make it a little more difficult for French scientists like Javot and Haquin to return home. "It is a different system in France in that you can get a permanent position even at the early stage of your scientific carrier [in public institutes such as] the Centre de la Recherche National Scientifique ( CNRS) and the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale ( INSERM)," explains Alexopoulou. This may look like a blessing, but it comes at price. Junior researchers need not apply for permanent positions above a certain age--31 in most cases--although particular circumstances are taken into consideration. Scientists who miss that mark may apply for a senior scientist position later, but these positions are even harder to find. "The level is higher," says Javot, "and there are only a few places." She adds that other employers such as universities also offer permanent positions without an age limit, but these are not the majority.

Another particularity of the French system is that it is very centralised around the public research institutes and their way of selecting applicants for the permanent positions they are offering. "There is only one frame to get in," says Javot. "In the U.S., when you are a good scientist, if it doesn't work in one place, you may find another institute where your ability will fit well. In France, being a good scientist isn't sufficient."

All of this adds to the pressure for young scientists to come home early. "I could do another postdoc, in the U.S. for example," says Haquin. Instead, he intends to start now looking into coming back to France, fearing that later it will be even more difficult to go home.

Initiative Postdocs

Apart from the limited range of opportunities in France, there is also the issue of access for expatriated scientists. Living abroad makes it more difficult to apply for a job in France, because it's harder to stay in touch with the scientific community and less convenient to go to interviews. "We just can't easily go and knock on the doors of French institutes as other scientists may, and these may be very talented people," says Javot. "Everything--not only trips but also phone calls and faxes--is very expensive when you are so far away from your country," says Haquin.

Both scientists were aware of the difficulties early on and made a point of trying to keep up their home networks, staying in touch with their previous labs in France, visiting new institutes during their holidays, setting up collaborations while at conferences, and joining online communities of French scientists within their host country and in France. "It is very important to keep in touch," says Javot, "but you also have to look for the information. It won't come otherwise." This is how both of them first heard about the Initiative Postdocs.

Initiative Postdocs was launched in March 2004, by the French Ministry for Education and Research, with the explicit aim of helping expatriated postdocs prepare to return home. Last October, a hundred French postdocs working abroad were given a budget of 5000 euros each to establish contacts with private or public laboratories in France, and to visit to discuss possible employment. Javot and Haquin were among the laureates, and both view the programme as a much needed help.

The money is certainly the main thing the programme is offering, but there is much more to it. Haquin would still do whatever was necessary to find a job in France, even though "I would have had to take this money from my own pocket." The commitment the programme represents and the encouragement it provides are also important to young researchers. "It is difficult when you are a postdoc; you feel that you are in a fragile position," says Javot, noting that the enthusiasm of French postdocs to return home is often unmatched by the country's apparent lack of keenness to have them back. "That is why I was so happy about the initiative," she says. "It gives you a boost. I now feel I am being supported."

France's scientific future

The initiative is expected to be continued in 2005, so Haquin recommends that prospective applicants start renewing links early on with their former Ph.D. labs in France, or any other contacts they may have, as he did himself. "It is very difficult to create new links [with people] if you didn?t know them before you left," he says. While abroad "you should always keep in mind to make contacts with French scientists. It is the only way to come back [to France] in a good situation."

So far Javot hasn't found a position back home, but she's giving herself a couple more years in the U.S. to see what will come of the help she is receiving through the Initiative Postdocs. "But I am starting to think that, if you really want to come back, going to another European country" is a good idea, "because it is probably easier to be closer."

Alexopoulou, a more experienced scientist than either Javot or Haquin, agrees that "it is very important to help young scientists come back to France, and to Europe." But the greater challenge remains, she believes, both for France and for young, expatriate scientists. "The point is not only to bring them back, but to give them possibilities. If you can?t get a permanent position, you can?t keep going on fellowships."

Haquin is very much aware of the risk that a research career may simply not be in the cards, and he is willing to consider industry and away-from-the-bench careers. After all, he figures, he has little choice. "I will first try in research, because I know this is my career," he says. "But if the French government doesn't let me, then I will not try to force it, because I can't."

Keeping in touch with France

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.