10 May 2012   |   Viewpoint

How Europe can inspire and support more breakthroughs in basic research

Research funding bodies must foster risk-taking, be more tolerant of errors, allow for changes in direction - and give scientists the time to develop new ideas, says Wilhelm Krull

The future of Europe rests on the ability to think creatively, to break new ground, and to encourage risk-taking in all walks of life. And the capacity to innovate and implement the changes necessary to achieve this ultimately depends on the readiness of European universities and research institutes to open up to fresh thinking, listen to independent voices, and to develop a climate of mutual learning.

Europe can only be successful in establishing and maintaining a globally competitive knowledge-based society if it continuously strives to enhance the quality of the research base, strengthen the structural dynamics of its various research and innovation systems, and to support frontier research in carefully selected areas.

It falls not only to researchers, but also to university leaders and research funders to be both courageous and adventurous. You can only encourage people to leave the beaten track and enter new fields if you are prepared to share the risks that are involved.

Changes in direction

The readiness to take risks must be complemented by a high degree of tolerance of errors. To forge new paths in a barely known territory often takes longer than the two or three years that is the usual length of project funding. Mistakes must be allowed, as must changes of direction. As Albert Einstein put it, “Two things are indispensable for our research work: untiring persistence and the readiness to dispose of something in which we have invested a lot of time and hard work.”

It is impossible to foresee the precise moment at which a radically new idea will emerge, or a major scientific discovery be made. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “Sometimes we do not know what we are looking for, until we finally find it.” But there are numerous examples in the history of research to prove it is possible to establish stimulating environments that are more conducive to breakthroughs in research. Although there is no one-size-fits-all kind of recipe we can apply, it is certainly worthwhile to try, fail, and try again.

Paradoxes and contradictions

Trying to achieve and maintain such a culture of creativity is not at all straightforward, but rather full of paradoxes and contradictions. Whilst every institution - not least to ensure its own survival - has to insist that members adhere to its rules, quality standards, and so on, the creation of new ideas is ultimately about seeing things differently, about breaking the rules, and about being tolerant to any errors that are made.

Epistemologically speaking, radically new ideas often cannot be phrased in terms of the initial question, and openness to "fresh thinking" is not only required by those who produce new ideas, but also by those who are expected to pick them up. The readiness to listen to independent voices inside and outside of one's own institutional network, to encourage risk-taking in "off the beaten track" areas, and to foster a climate of mutual learning, is a prerequisite for successfully establishing true cultures of creativity.

Research funding organisations can play a crucial role in helping to establish such cultures. However, current modes of research funding are rather adverse to fostering risk-taking and to encouraging researchers to set sail into the great unknown. If we assess the prevalent research funding policy, we see too much agenda-setting, not by researchers but by politicians and research funding organisations; too much trust in the viability of ever larger clusters, programmes, and research units; and distrust in the ability and creativity of the individual researcher. It is the specific combination of intelligence and imagination inherent in the most talented individual researcher and his or her collaborators, which is the key to innovation and progress in research.

Extinguishing flames of creativity

In many ways, the current mode of research funding is exactly the opposite of what it should be. We currently pursue a “We don’t trust you – we know better – and – we want results now”- approach which extinguishes small flames of creativity and certainly prevents them from turning into a strong fire of transformative research and scientific innovation.

The results of research on successful R&D programmes tells us it is important to focus not on large clusters, but on small teams of five to seven researchers embedded in an adequately enriched environment and supported by modes of funding which provide medium- to long-term financing of some seven to ten years.

Such time and space for some thorough rethinking of common wisdom is urgently needed and has to be expanded. To establish a culture of creativity takes a joint effort by researchers, their institutions and research funding organisations. The latter should support talented people, innovative projects, and research-friendly structures in order to create an environment conducive to creativity.

Cultures of creativity

In this respect foundations have a crucial role to play. With their proven track record in facilitating social, cultural, scientific, and technological change, they are in a unique position to encourage experimentation and risk-taking in hitherto unknown territories, and thus to contribute to successfully developing cultures of creativity.

All of us will have to focus on new opportunities, for example in developing role-models for institutional change, capacity-building, and international collaboration, on major challenges involved in encouraging and implementing new pathways, as well as on some of the most relevant limits and limitations when it comes to achieving leveraging effects, or even lasting impacts on the future development of higher education and research in Europe.

Wilhelm Krull is Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation, the largest private funder of science in Germany.  This Viewpoint is based on a speech he gave on April 20th to a Danish EU Presidency conference ‘Excellence Revisited – The Value of Excellence’ at Aarhus University